Marilyn Manson is back. Bigger, madder and darker than ever. Hungry to dig under the fingernails of society and uncover the hypocritical, putrid scabs beneath. Well, that’s what the media would have you believe. After years of output with limited commercial success, the music and popular press seem genuinely thrilled to embrace the craziness and welcome some long overdue menace into the over-sanitized mainstream. Manson might not be the threat to the nation’s youth that he once was but boy could we do with him right now.
Although the days of shocking the world with his provocative mix of outlandish outfits and dark pseudo-philosophical ruminations on religion, sex and violence at MTV award shows has long gone, maybe there is something in this. Perhaps, Marilyn Manson is precisely the boogie man we need in these uncertain times. In 2017 when the threats to our security and equilibrium are so often arbitrary, swift and brutal, his is a reassuringly familiar and harmless act. His very presence evokes safer times when all we had to concern ourselves with was a man in pancake makeup and suspenders moaning and groaning onstage screaming about not being born with enough middle fingers. It might not be to everyone’s taste but at least it has a face, and we can understand it. Sadly, with the release of Heaven Upside Down, whichever way you look at it, this proves to be wishful thinking.
The album starts promisingly enough with “Revelation #12” beginning in true dystopian fashion with wailing police sirens and a looped voice repeating the phrase ‘playing god’ before a blaze of industrial drums and lacerating guitars tear a jagged gash through the shadows. The sound takes the hostile, buzzing, industrial metal of Antichrist Superstar and the more polished glam of Mechanical Animals and fuses them together to thrilling effect. “Tattooed in Reverse” is Mechanical Animals seen through the goth blues prism of previous album The Pale Emperor, and sprinkled with the horror show touches of Portrait of an American Family. Sonically, the opening of the album mines the best parts of Manson’s early years and rivals even his most successful albums for sheer intensity.
First single “We Know Where You Fucking Live” is a charged and vicious musical statement with co-collaborator Tyler Bates bringing a punk urgency to proceedings, while Manson screams himself hoarse in a manner not really heard since Antichrist Superstar. It is also a brutally forthright summation of the use of drones in warfare as he screams, “We’ll burn it down, burn it down / They won’t even recognize your corpse.” It may not be the subtlest of political statements, but it stands as one of his better attempts at social commentary heard in recent years. Lamentably, this is also the point where any meaningful contribution to the state of the world ends.
On “Say 10” Bates adds texture to create a brooding, darkly atmospheric piece like a genuinely unnerving goth, hip-hop tune. It’s an unsettling, bleak canvas for Manson to explore that is all too soon slashed by a stomping glam riff. It is here that the overriding limitations of the album are made plain. The song feels like a missed opportunity as the sonic experimentation quickly reverts to Manson by numbers with a chorus cribbed from an old high school notebook. The same can be said of “Jesus Crisis” which draws from the same old tired Manson themes of religion, fucking and fighting.
Nevertheless, there are further signs of life on the dark electropop of “Kill4Me” which updates the vibe of Mechanical Animal’s “I Don’t Like the Drugs but the Drugs Like Me” to create one of the catchiest songs on the album. It underlines the fact, that when Manson wants to, he can push himself to write something genuinely new and fresh. Elsewhere, “Blood Honey” is a piano lead industrial ballad which sounds like a Mechanical Animals era B-side. The album closes with the glam metal boogie of “Threats of Romance” sounding like a more strung out T-Rex. However, Manson’s inability to keep pace is evident with even he struggling to sound convincing on lines such “I like you damaged / But I need something left.”
While Bates gives the album some much needed spite and malice, Manson doesn’t seem to be working at the same pace. Too often he slips back into the tired shock rocker routine with nothing novel or relevant to add. With the world in the perilous state it is in, the time seems perfect for Manson to cuttingly take apart modern America. Instead, he doesn’t sound up to the task. As if years of self-abuse have finally left him unable to go past the first few rounds, like an aging prizefighter who’s taken a few too many blows. That is all the more frustrating as previous album The Pale Emperor showed what he was capable of if he was shaken awake and taken firmly out of his comfort zone.
Heaven Upside Down finds Manson struggling for meaning. The lyrics are not the harsh, pointed barbs that he supposes they are. Simply sounding like the tame, blunted fury of a man rehashing the same old tired themes. When people like Trump, Farage, and Hopkins can say something more offensive and genuinely terrifying in one tweet than Manson can on a whole album, then he is going to have to try a whole lot harder next time.
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