Marilyn Manson has referred to his band’s latest release as their version of the White Album. At 19 tracks and nearly 70 minutes, Holy Wood may rival The Beatles’ most intriguing record in sheer bulk, but it’s hardly comparable in composition. The Beatles’ classic is sprawling, schizophrenic, rarely coherent, and reveals its creators’ disillusionment with the ‘60s and each other through its artistic disarray; Manson’s latest, on the other hand, is a very calculated concept album intended as a statement on violence in modern society and the role that the media and Manson himself have played in it.
Rather than implicate himself as the protagonist in the Holy Wood story, Manson has created a character called Adam Kadmon. According to Manson, the album is one of three works (the others are an upcoming novel and film) that tell the story of Kadmon, an outsider who finds acceptance in the mythical Holy Wood, only to be engulfed by violence and consumed by his own fame. It’s difficult to assess the narrative’s effectiveness without the book and the film, but the album doesn’t tell much of a story, instead presenting variations on the same themes: God, isolation, guns, and death.
Still, it’s interesting to hear Manson’s commentaries, because they seem to address accusations, raised in the wake of the Columbine massacre, that his music may be responsible for violence. Manson points the accusing finger right back at society, citing society’s hunger for violence and the media’s eagerness to dish it out. Using the example of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Manson sneers on “Lamb of God”: “If you die when there’s no one watching / Then your ratings drop and you’re forgotten / But if they kill you on their TV / You’re a martyr and a lamb of God”.
Musically, Manson’s band is tighter than ever and seems to have found a balance between the abrasive sound of Antichrist Superstar and the glam-rock tendencies of Mechanical Animals. While not terribly original (Ministry and Nine Inch Nails did similar but better work years ago), the music is often effective, as on the searing “The Fight Song” and “Disposable Teens”, which, along with “The Nobodies” comes closest to addressing Columbine head-on in lines like: “We are the nobodies / We wanna be somebodies / When we’re dead / They’ll know just who we are”.
The central flaw of Holy Wood is that the power of its message, an important and provocative one, is watered down by its artistic pretensions. While Holy Wood is often affecting, it would be a better album if it was shorter and dealt with its subject matter directly, instead of through the veil of the “concept album”.