Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor

by paul_guyet Rating:5 Release Date:2015-01-19

My hopes were, admittedly, low as I waded into Marilyn Manson’s ninth studio album, The Pale Emperor. Would it be a sad, wet fart? A leaking bag of liquescent, worm-ridden feces? Something worse? Or something listenable, maybe even…enjoyable?

The biggest problem with this album is Manson, specifically his voice and his lyrics (except for a tiny handful of tracks). Also, the down-n-dirty thump-drums are way, way, way overused, but, aside from those two (arguably, pretty crucial) issues… Sweet Christ I cannot believe I’m saying this after so long… This album is not a reeking pit of garbage. This is a compliment.

Things get off to a genuinely solid start with 'Killing Strangers'. Seriously. No bells and whistles, no pointless, droning intros, just some utterly filthy bass and guitar, as well as some percussion that could either be a mud-caked maraca or a gun being cocked.

Although there is some of that silly, lazy, not-really word-play (“This world doesn’t need no opera/ we’re here for the operation”), it’s not overly grating. Throw in a really nice eerily, moody, sorrowfully melodic outro and - holy shit - you’ve gotten my hopes up, Marilyn... Wait, why are you handing me a box of tissues? And smiling?

Things… depreciate… from this point on until almost the end of the album. For as garbled as his vocals are, one can’t deny that 'Cupid Carries a Gun' is a pretty well-made song. After that, the closer, 'Odds of Even', which has some excellent atmospheric layers, ameliorates some of what’s come before it. Like the majority of the tracks on Pale Emperor, it’s too good for Manson’s vocals. There’s some chilling, old school croaking from Manson towards the end, a pleasant throwback for fans.

Along with those three tracks, a few others stand out, mainly (pretty much solely), for their music and not their vocals or lyrics, specifically 'Mephistopheles of Los Angeles', 'Warship My Wreck'*, and 'Slave Only Dreams to Be King'. If you’re keeping count, that's six solid tracks of the ten that make up The Pale Emperor. A stunning ratio.

I also need to take a moment and give sincere praise to the one and only clever turn of phrase on the album: in the single 'Deep Six', a song mentioning Zeus and Narcissus, as well as referring to Icarus, Manson has the lyric (repeated maybe a few times too many) “Eros is sore”… Well done, Marilyn. Whether this came from hours of quiet reflection or you seeing the word 'sore' quietly reflected in a pool of semen (He’d probably have random pools of semen strewn about his home, yes? He is still the God of Fuck, right?), I am impressed.

But. This one shining example is embedded in a viscous ocean of mung. Some examples: “I don’t want your God and your higher power/ I want power to get higher” ('The Devil Beneath My Feet'), “You are what you beat” ('Slave Only Dreams to Be King'), and “You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus?/ ‘You’d better watch yourself’” ('Deep Six'). Ugh. I try not to think too hard about the 'meaning' of his lyrics these days, because doing so is like sifting through shit looking for undigested peanuts. And just as rewarding.

To get off my snark horse for a moment, I did have another real issue; when I listen to this album, I get no sense of who this 'pale emperor' is supposed to be. Is it Death? Because nothing on offer really cements that or any other idea.

There’s war imagery, talk of guns, God, the Devil, demons, angels; there’s a “king” mentioned in 'Slave Only Dreams to Be King' and a line in 'Cupid Carries a Gun' referring to Death (“Folks say that I look like Death”), but none of that is the same as constructing a storyline or creating a character. Unlike Antichrist Superstar and, to a lesser extent, Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood, where there was a clear narrative with characters, and a beginning, middle and end, this is just a collection of songs plagued with Thumpy Drums. I’ll fully admit to being drawn in immediately by the title; it’s very evocative, and this lack of depth is the biggest letdown for me, even when stacked next to Manson’s near-useless voice and overwrought lyrics.

There are three things I would say to Manson if he weren’t preoccupied with, I don’t know, filling ravens with cocaine and then slamming them up his ass? That sounds outlandish and silly enough to be something he’d do, right?

  1. Fix your voice. I’m not talking about auto tune or anything along those lines, I’m talking about maybe drinking some water or not singing first thing in the morning or removing all the socks from your mouth before hitting “record”. Vocally, the songs here fall into two categories, for the most part: irascible ranting or groggy mumbling. Sometimes the ranting is groggy, sometimes the mumbling is irascible, but, either way, it’s mostly garbage. Quite frankly, I just can’t understand a lot of what the fuck he’s saying without a lyric sheet in front of me. It’s distracting.
  2. Repeating something several times in one three and a half minute song doesn’t make it clever or expose a deeper meaning. In fact, if it’s just barely tolerable the first time, it only gets worse with each repetition. It’s called “diminishing returns”, Marilyn…and I am 100% certain you’ve heard that term a few times in the last decade.
  3. Stick with Tyler Bates (guitarist, keyboardist and co-producer on Pale Emperor). While it might not be groundbreaking, the music here is miles better than anything you’ve done (with or without Twiggy) in the past ten years.

Aside from The Golden Age Of Grotesque, released in 2003, this is, shockingly, one of Manson’s best albums, alas, he’s still missing the clarity, focus and fury of his best works. He just doesn’t really have anything to say anymore, nothing we want or need to hear anyway. I’m done expending my energy hoping Marilyn Manson is going to have some sort of renaissance. I think Pale Emperor is the best we can expect from him now, in the same way that thyroid cancer is the best kind of cancer someone can get.

A note on the bonus tracks: all three are acoustic-esque renditions of tracks from the album, namely “Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge” (“Day 3”), “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” (“Fated, Faithful, Fatal”), and “Odds Of Even” (“Fall Of The House Of Death”), so, if your favorite aspect of those three songs is Manson’s vocals, then the deluxe version of the album is for you.  

* Stupid pun or sloppy spellchecking? You decide!

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