Manson: A cry against nature Review: 'Animals' is a gender-bending, genre-borrowing, creepy mix. Sorry, Mom, it's also quite good.

September 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Americans are a fairly tolerant people on the whole, but there comes a time when even the most open-minded will say: Enough.

A little kink can be entertaining on occasion, but nobody wants a steady diet of the stuff. Although aberrant sex acts and raging egomania can't be banned in a free society, they should at least be kept in their place. And the place for such things is not the White House -- it's Marilyn Manson albums.

How fortunate, then, that Manson's new album, "Mechanical Animals" (Interscope 90273, arriving in stores today), would be released mere days after the Starr report.

Monica and her Macanudo may seem pervy when compared with other stuff on the evening news, but it's hardly as much a creep-out as the cover of this album, which boasts a nude Manson in some weird alien androgyne get-up.

With its shiny white skin and blood-red hair, the creature looks like a cross between David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the spaceman character Bowie played in "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Manson shamelessly plays up the Bowie-isms in the album packaging, which includes a shot of him in glam-rock garb, posing as the leader of Omega and the Mechanical Animals, and also in the video for the album's first single, "The Dope Show."

Even without the visuals, Manson's debt to Bowie would be obvious, what with the Spiders from Mars drawl he affects on "I Don't Want to Disappear" and the world-weary croon he applies to "The Speed of Pain." About the only thing he doesn't attempt is to imitate Bowie's falsetto -- though he may be saving that for his next album.

Manson's Bowie-isms aren't the only change here. Where his last album, the Trent Reznor-produced "Antichrist Superstar," came on like Nine Inch Nails Lite, "Mechanical Animals" is total '90s glam, from the stomping pulse of "Rock Is Dead" to the soul-girl harmonies that cushion "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)."

'Such a bore'

Oddly enough, the one aspect of glam that Manson doesn't much exploit is its fondness for freaky sex. True, the album's cover image is very much in the gender-bending tradition of glam rock, but there's little in the lyrics to suggest that Manson is advocating -- or even into -- the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am enthusiasm of Ziggy Stardust's pansexuality.

If anything, Manson paints sex as something dreary and sordid, less a source of pleasure than a sort of power exchange between stars and sycophants. "User Friendly" is particularly unflinching in that regard, a funky, synth-driven homage to people who believe that "relationships are such a bore." Its chorus: "I'm not in love, but I'm gonna [have sex with] you/'Til somebody better comes along."

A real Hallmark moment, that.

Drugs are a much larger part of the "Mechanical Animals" worldview, but even there, Manson has a hard time mustering much in the way of enthusiasm. No matter how much "The Dope Show" may seem to revel in the drugs-and-celebrity excesses of big-time rock and roll, it's hardly a celebration. If anything, it sneers at the emptiness of that world, evoking a culture so full of opportunists, back-stabbers and sycophants that only a dope would want to get involved (hence the title).

Don't mistake this for a simple anti-drug album, though. Manson may not have anything good to say about drugs, but neither does he deny their appeal. For one thing, he's forever drawing connections between drugs and sex. In "The Dope Show," he goes on about "the pretty, pretty ones/That want to get you high," while the album's title tune has him telling his lover, "You were phenobarbidoll/A mannequeen of depression."

But he really gets to the heart of things in "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)." Built around a mean, funky groove (imagine a slowed-down version of Bowie's "Fame") and boasting a big, chant-along chorus, it's clearly one of the catchiest tunes on the album.

It's also one of the most disturbing, inasmuch as its message seems to be that normal people ("norm life baby" is Manson's phrase) are such boring, self-deluded hypocrites that the only way a sensible person could bear being in the same world with them is by taking drugs -- even though drugs are bad.

Needless to say, we probably won't see Manson espousing this view in public service announcements anytime soon.

Confounding and outraging the mainstream has been Manson's drawing card from the beginning. Rather than the cardboard Satanist the Christian right has tried to conjure in its anti-Manson propaganda, the persona Manson presents on "Mechanical Animals" is too complicated and compelling to act as just a rock-and-roll bogeyman.

Granted, the album isn't perfect. As a singer, Manson remains more imaginative than accomplished, and his vocal inadequacies do hinder him from time to time (the self-pitying slow ballad "Fundamentally Loathsome" is a case in point).

But when "Mechanical Animals" works -- and that's most of the time -- it shows Manson to be one of the most creative and articulate songwriters in rock right now. Whether that's a testament to his brilliance, or simply a reflection of how bad things are elsewhere in rock these days, is up to you.

Marilyn Manson

"Mechanical Animals" (Interscope 90273)

Sun score: ***

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Marilyn Manson's new release, "Mechanical Animals," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6119. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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