In the years since his tenure as the pied piper of suburban America, in the twilight of Pat Buchanan’s culture war, Marilyn Manson has gracefully assumed his post as Hollywood’s goth-in-residence. If most of the music his band has made since their commercial apex has been unremarkable, their ninth album, The Pale Emperor emerges as the band’s most muscular, streamlined work since 2000’s Holy Wood. The chain-gang lurch of opener “Killing Strangers” wastes no time announcing an overdue transition from previous albums’ industrial pop-metal aesthetic to bottom-heavy Southern rock. The band’s core style—slick, sinister, stadium-sized glam rock mixed with grunge’s down-tuned guitars and quiet-loud-quiet schemes—remains, and dystopian atmospherics still fill out the background, especially on the drum machine-driven S&M ballad “Warship My Wreck.” But the bluesy affectations inject the music with some much-needed vitality.
This is, in part, credit to Manson’s choice in personnel. Guardians of the Galaxy composer Tyler Bates, who co-wrote the album and plays bass, and Stolen Babies drummer Gil Sharone lend the proceedings a low end that’s as agile as it is colossal. Mostly, though, the new sound simply plays to Manson’s knack for demonic riffs and shout-along hooks. The jock-jams-from-hell stomp of “The Beautiful People” and “Disposable Teens” translates effortlessly into a kind of hard-shuffled Southern boogie on songs like the standout “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge,” which borrows the syncopated sighs of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”
Manson sounds similarly at home in outlaw dirges like “Birds of Hell Awaiting” and “Odds of Even,” supporting his claim in a recent interview that the album explores the singer’s “redneck” side. A fixation on firearms has been a constant in the band’s discography, and not only is Cupid packing here, but “we got guns” on “Killing Strangers,” and “I’ve got bullets in the booth” on “Seven Day Binge.” Even more persistent is Manson’s reliably Satanic vocabulary, even as his crosshairs train on more secular targets than his favorite foil, organized religion. Los Angeles is envisaged as an earthly Hades, populated by witches and phoenixes, where lovers’ genitals are compared to Bibles (“Cupid Carries a Gun”), only “sin is sincere” (“Deep Six”), and every deal is Faustian (“The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles”). The message seems to be that his Hollywood assimilation hasn’t slowed his misanthropy or taste for the grotesque (it’s not a coincidence that the Asterocampa clyton, a magisterial species of butterfly that feeds on dung and carrion, is sometimes called the “pale emperor”).
None of this, of course, is very novel or nuanced. Nor can Manson carry a tune in a bucket, as the redneck saying goes. But like Alice Cooper, his spiritual forebear in gender-bending shock rock, he hawks cheeky, grandiose blasphemy in the form of riff-laden anthems, and on those terms, this trim, turbocharged album delivers. With his androgynous, theatrical star image, Manson inevitably draws comparison to David Bowie, too, and “the pale emperor” especially evokes Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona. But whereas the Duke represented the pop icon’s most aggressive experimentation with composition and style, Manson appears content simply to polish up the usual antisocial stompers. His intellect and high-art dalliances have singled Manson out among nü-metal’s macho philistines, so his unwillingness to move outside his songwriting comfort zone can be frustrating. However powerfully and parsimoniously The Pale Emperor realizes Manson’s post-grunge goth-glam vision, it can’t quite shake an impression that’s shadowed him since his heyday: that he’s selling himself short.