An In-Depth Look at Marilyn Manson’s “We Are Chaos”
It seems a lifetime ago that Perry Farrell sneered out the phrase “Nothing’s shoooocking!” in his breathy serpentine croon on Jane’s Addiction’s 1988 debut record. Now, over three decades later, are we living in a truly post-shock world? Sure, ‘outrage’ is more rampant than ever but actual shock at events and images? Firehose media exposure has ostensibly rendered shock obsolete. What does this say about shock entertainers? For years it pushed a constant upping of the ante to provoke a reaction but what is really left to do? A couple of women can still get conservative pundits up in arms about a song referencing their sexual excitement but I don’t think the world at large really batted an eyelash at the discussion.
Manson’s endgame of using lurid imagery and scathing lyrics to provoke new and elevated thought on long-entrenched societal principles was extremely effective in the last decade of the previous millennium and into the fraught years of the early 2000s. After establishing his presence with his schoolyard goth spooky debut and attention-grabbing cover-featuring EP, Manson came out with a string of albums that by virtue of their shock-and-awe assault, would shake the foundations of American norms. The preeminent Antichrist Superstar put a funhouse mirror to the cracking facade of the Christian supremacist nature of American society with graphically disturbing music videos, wild concert rumours, and a viciousness previously unheard on the charts. Mechanical Animals took the focus from the Bible Belt to Hollywood taking direct aim at the sickness of celebritarianism and gawking at the socially maligned. Sadomasochism was traded for alien androgyny as the masses were again left spellbound by his antics, which polarized a nation. Behind these headline-grabbing stunts was an art that was deeply personal, tapping directly into the core of the repercussions of isolation as a human vessel on this rock.
The 2000s began with some fairly successful albums addressing gun violence (Holy Wood) and decadence (The Golden Age of Grotesque) but as with most artists, a template began to emerge which would eventually lead to a stale period. These albums still had some brilliant deep cuts, unfortunately, the A-side singles put forth started to become cookie-cutter, and predictable is the antithesis of shock. By the time we hit 2009’s The High End of Low, Manson had hit a full-on rut. The band that had helped forge his groundbreaking albums had splintered. The template became the whole story. Mid-tempo digitally distorted guitars with some painfully uncreative and contrived Satan references.
An artistic career if you’re lucky enough not to vanish into obscurity can have many ups and downs. Manson rallied in 2015 with The Pale Emperor containing both some of his most powerfully vicious work in years as well as tracks like ‘Third Day of a Seven Day Binge’ that recon textualized the singer in a new light. A mythical dusty backroad drifter rather than the occasional Access Hollywood punching bag that he had become. This new tone was a promising potential evolution. His decision to cover ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ made famous recently by Johnny Cash gave further credence to this outlaw country path. So when the announcement came down that the new record would be produced by Shooter Jennings, son of legendary singer Waylon Jennings, the stage seemed set for Manson to emerge from his cocoon with new wings and a black Stetson.
Did Manson go outlaw country? Well… no.
Does We Are Chaos break from the rut and reimagine Manson in a new light? Yeah, it does. The album released on September 11th (of course…) finds him at times in the most straight forward pop context of his career, no doubt at the behest of producer Jennings. Other tracks recall past glory but not a rehash of the Manson FM radio single formula but rather finding innovative tones and structures akin to his brilliant deeper cuts from Antichrist and Mechanical Animals. Punishing German industrial assaults from the former and penetrating acoustic, Bowie-tinged influence from the latter.
Manson has borrowed some 70s B-movie gritty horror schtick from his tourmate Rob Zombie. The intro to the album opens with an evil bad guy monologue and the video for the single ‘Don’t Chase the Dead’ features Manson, Norman Reedus, and Manson’s girlfriend Lindsay Usich in grainy footage of a slasher flick scene. From its mood-setting words, the opener ‘Red, Black and Blue’ slips seamlessly into a good old Antichrist-era tribal toms and metal-rattling bass groove that leads the imagination of the listener down a deep dark hole. Manson’s voice, clipped with distortion, finds power and heft again channeling the nihilistic rage he had harnessed in ’96.
To say the lead single that follows is a sharp turn is an understatement. The anarchic coldness is stopped on a dime and shifted to an arena-ready sing-along anthem that plays like a hybrid of the Flaming Lips with Imagine Dragons. A placid, bumblingly humble acoustic intro leads into THE stereotypical verse trope for mainstream rock in the 21st century: the inspirational four-chord progression driven by a steady four-count kick. All the ersatz rock groups that infect the charts these days are using this tried and true formula. For the classic Manson fan, this is very jarring. It’s not to say that Manson hasn’t always had his share of pop elements. This is not prog, this is not death metal. However, to hear him so directly cop a template that could come right out of a Twenty-One Pilots pre-production playbook is a tough first listen. Without context as a first taste, it seemed like Shooter Jennings had effectively sterilized Manson and that the entire record would follow suit. Luckily, that was not the case. The title track stands apart as an all-encompassing evaluation of humanity at this crossroads amid an eclectic collection of tracks. The universality of the music, down to its deeply cliched C-B-Am walkdown chorus is essential to giving the song the widespread regard it demands. With all the talking heads out there screaming to assert that their interpretation of logic is the almighty truth, Manson cuts them all down declaring “We are sick, fucked up and complicated/We are chaos, we can’t be cured”. There’s a melancholy for the species but at the same time, a sort of kinship born of the madness. Across the cultural divides, we are united in our insanity. An oddly comforting thought. This song is a testament to the value of multiple listens because a track that at first was met with disbelief and dismissal became a cornerstone track for the album. The method was starting to make sense.
Another seamless transition shoots us through to the new single ‘Don’t Chase the Dead’. The music follows in the footsteps of The Pale Emperor’s ‘Third Day…’ in the verse and opens up into a big dreamy chorus that sets its hooks in your brain. This is probably one of the best examples of Jennings’ production influence adding just the right amount of pop without draining it of Manson’s essence. ‘Paint You With my Love’ is another striking detour. The song is the musical equivalent of Jack from Titanic drawing Rose “like one of your french girls”. Manson throws himself headlong into falsetto, embracing the glamiest of Bowie periods. Slowly plodding drums and steady quarter-note piano are beset by earnestly strummed acoustic guitar. However, he manages to turn it on us again launching into a grandiose heavy finish that recalls the finale of the Mechanical Animals title track. The enigmatic track challenges your notions once again and stands up stronger with multiple listens.
With the album’s most obvious singles on display on the front end, Manson’s more creatively lush works come with the “album tracks” relegated to the latter half. ‘Half-way & One Step Forward’s plunky saloon piano drives this track that really settles us into Manson’s headspace. Not his performative shlock but the glimmers of humanity that shine out beyond the headline-grabbing facade. Very fitting then that he repurposes the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s incredible ‘Anthem’ with very little alteration: “Ring all the bells you can ring/There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the sunlight gets in”. The track is yet another recall to the best elements of 1998’s Mechanical Animals. By contrast, the proceeding ‘Infinite Darkness’ takes us down into that nihilist absolution that was so captivating on Antichrist Superstar. An underbelly rolling beat lets Manson set the stage in the verses, swelling up to a ferocious snarling chorus. ‘Deformography’, ‘Mister Superstar’, and ‘The Reflecting God’ are the progenitors of this cold brand of industrial that Manson once again showcases with a masterful presence.
The album does have its one throwaway track, the corny stereotypical Manson rut song, and that’s ‘Perfume’. The all-too-familiar Manson shuffle beat is led by a tired battle cry, “Get behind me, get behind me, get behind me, Sayy-taaan!” The verses are laboured and lazy as he’s run over these tracks so many times before. An album full of such forgettable tracks led to his artistic waning but one on an album flies by quickly enough to just act as a palette cleanser to take you into the home stretch.
‘Keep My Head Together’ is a solid catchy mid-tempo rocker that shares a beat and chord structure with Stone Temple Pilots ’96 steamroller “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart”. The lyrics show Manson at his most sensible (?!?!). References to eating glass aside, the man who was the poster boy for recklessly diving into shitshows, is now preaching measured caution when getting into relationships. “Don’t try changing someone else/You’ll just end up changing yourself/I keep my head together/Better keep your head together”.
‘Solve Coagula’ revisits melancholic Mechanical Animals territory again leaving open highways of space in the music. The closer ‘Broken Needle’ also has touchstones of the ’98 album with earnest acoustic guitar recalling ‘The Speed of Pain’ and ‘The Last Night on Earth’, particularly the acoustic version he’d perform live on The Last Tour on Earth. Grandiose, theatrical, sentimental, with strings and grand piano flourishes. Throwing everything at the canvas for the final act. This track would fill an arena with lighters if we were ever allowed to fill a stadium again.
So what’s the takeaway here. First, this album definitely takes multiple listens to appreciate it properly. Not because it’s inaccessible but rather because it’s too accessible. The true shock here is to hear the God of Fuck in such pop-friendly terms. He still delivers his dark, hatcheted metaphors through his trademark growl and screech but for a handful of tracks, the commercial ballad sensibility is strong. Almost all artists have to face this dilemma with age. Coming to terms with the vitriolic maniac of your youth and finding a way to transition into an elder statesman is different for everyone. With We Are Chaos, it’s perhaps not the move towards pop musicality that is a detractor but merely the lazy and unimaginative drums for certain songs that could make seasoned fans question the new direction.
As for pros, the album has several. Key among them is the fact that Manson is evolving. In interviews, he sounds like a changed man. Wise from having many lifetimes of experience squeezed into his 51 years. John Lennon once said that he threw himself fully into whatever he was intrigued by if only to fully source out its fallacies (eg: ‘God’ from Plastic Ono Band). It seems that Manson, after losing himself on a demented Wonka boat ride of drugs, sex, decadence, and being a societally appointed boogieman, has seen more than most and is living to tell the tale for us. Cautionary, educational, therapeutic. The title track continues to reassert itself with every listen. It’s the end of series montage where big and small moments of your life flash back before your eyes but unlike your favourite sitcom, the scenes that flash include the traumas, the disgusting moments, the car crashes, the times when life completely blindsided you. A young artist violently asserts their individuality. One of the best things a maturing artist can do is to astutely articulate our universality.