Marilyn Manson may have disposed of the contact lenses that contributed to his instantly recognizable figure back in his heyday, but with those he certainly hasn’t distanced himself from the man who he has often referred to as his biggest influence. Quite the contrary, or so it seems: while the title of Manson’s ninth studio album explicitly refers to Roman emperor Elagabalus, it also immediately summons the mad presence of the Thin White Duke, a creation of David Bowie’s, the man to whom Manson’s contact lenses paid homage, among a myriad of other more obscure meanings and references. It’s rather fitting. David Bowie’s Duke, a warped version of Bowie himself and the amoral aristocrat at the center of his 1976 album Station To Station, was a creation devoid of emotion, a hollow youth who sung of love with agonizing cold in his voice. Bowie’s impeccably dressed character strutted around numb, causing pain to test his limits, like a modern-day Dorian Gray. There’s a sense that Manson has now taken Bowie’s character, made him his own and dared to look past the Duke’s numbness, and into his soul. The result is an album on which Brian Warner, Marilyn Manson, the Pale Emperor, is now brutally honest with himself.
While Manson’s previous three albums Born Villain (2012), The High End Of Low (2009) and Eat Me, Drink Me (2007) certainly were very emotional efforts, they were the thoughts and feelings of a broken and brokenhearted man lashing out at those who had done him wrong. Before that his shock-rock antics were mostly meant to upset the mainstream and to get people to think. In other words: Manson’s gaze has always seemed to be aimed more at the outside world, and not predominantly inward. While he certainly isn’t navel-gazing on The Pale Emperor, there’s a refreshing sense of clarity and honesty present, a sense of who he is, what motivates him and what he wants. It makes for a much easier to grasp listening experience than his earlier works, concept albums ripe with allegories. The man is still a wordsmith, though: the words and sentence structures he uses, leave plenty of room to read more into his lyrics. Enhanced with the religious imaginary we’ve come to expect and cinematic descriptions, the songs on The Pale Emperor beg to be interpreted in many different ways. There are also some brilliant musical decisions on show that flip the meaning of a track entirely if viewed in a certain way. Nowhere is this more evident than on opener ‘Killing Strangers’: its unexpected outro underlines the desperation and sadness present under the song’s hardened casing. “We’re killing strangers, so we don’t kill the ones that we love,” Manson sings coldly at first, angry and in control, until his vocal inflection changes and the track gives way to a melancholy electric piano tune over the opener’s drum beat. Through the visage, and into the heart.
While The Pale Emperor lacks a title track, ‘The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles’ can surely be viewed as such. It’s a song on which the Thin White Duke and the Pale Emperor come together beautifully, in the guise of the discarded and lost soul the track’s named after. “I don’t know if I can open up, I’ve been opened enough,” Manson sings at the start, a simple and haunting statement that kicks off a track that juxtaposes its introspective lyrics beautifully with a true rock ‘n’ roll stomper of an arrangement. The music once again adds another layer of meaning to the song: the track is brimming with purpose and self-acceptance, something that’s reinforced later by the chorus. Manson’s take on David Bowie’s Thin White Duke, a creation Bowie dreamed up while he was said to have locked himself up in his L.A. residence and he was living on nothing more than peppers, milk and coke, has now grown older, has sobered up, and knows he’s fallen from grace. The beauty is this isn’t the final station, no phase of self-loathing or pity; it’s just what it is and maybe even an opportunity for a fresh start. Manson’s journey of discovery continues on what is the album’s stand-out track and one of the best songs he has ever created, ‘Warship My Wreck’. Strong lyrics, beautiful buildup, vocal prowess and an immensely satisfying crescendo all make sure this is a Marilyn Manson effort you won’t soon forget. “My dagger and swagger are useless in the face of the mirror when the mirror is made of my face,” he later croons on the album’s bluesy closing track ‘Odds Of Even’, a song that expertly rounds out the record and completes the Pale Emperor’s journey of self-discovery.
For fans of the more philosophical and politically-charged Manson The Pale Emperor also has a treat: ‘Slave Only Dreams To Be King’ is a nasty track with hard-hitting drums, raw guitars and a hoarse Manson who spews out his lyrics with venom and vigor. While it’s one of the record’s best, it does lead me to one weaker aspect of the album: musically The Pale Emperor sounds as a whole but lyrically it doesn’t always feel quite as cohesive. The biggest offender is ‘Cupid Carries A Gun’, a song that switches from witch imaginary, to Dante Alighieri’esque concoctions, to Bonnie and Clyde allusions, and back to the Bible again. While these are all interesting ideas on their own, it doesn’t quite come together swimmingly, no matter how catchy the song’s hooks are. And then there’s the moody ‘Birds Of Hell Awaiting’, a track that’s way too repetitive for its own good and quite nonsensical too in the lyrics department. “This is your death’s desire,” Manson sings over and over again in this track about birds of hell being mistaken for phoenixes, a metaphor that’s clever but nothing more; there’s no pay-off to this notion and as a result Manson’s lyrics just sound half-baked and strangely pretentious. This misstep aside, there’s really nothing negative to note about The Pale Emperor, even though the album’s radio-friendliness might be off-putting to those who had hoped the shock-rock icon would return with something edgier and more vile, causing chaos in the process.
Marilyn Manson’s The Pale Emperor is a strong and assured outing, an album that sounds fresh and even fun despite Manson’s penchant for all things twisted and dark. It’s a great collection of rock ‘n’ roll songs and there’s mostly excellent songwriting on display. 8/10