Back in the Nineties, Marilyn Manson sold a lot of records and scared a lot of parents by playing Alice Cooper shockrocker at the goth pity party. With his Methy the Clown fashion sense, lyrics like "I am totalitarian/I've got abortions in my eyes" and industrial-metal sound, Manson terrorized Christian politicians and tasteful music fans alike. He hit his high point with the android glam of 1998's Mechanical Animals, moaning, "We're all stars now in the dope show," over music that sounded like David Bowie being sucked down a trash compactor. But in the 2000s, the dope show got a little too dope even for him. It's tough to be an Antichrist Superstar in an era when the Internet and cable TV routinely find new ways to freak us out.
No one knows this better than Manson himself, who's spent most of the past 15 years moving toward earthier music that tries to hold a mirror up to his decadent persona. Meanwhile, he's become an L.A. fixture and small-part TV actor on shows like Californication and Sons of Anarchy. On The Pale Emperor, Manson puts himself forward as a sort of trash-culture elder statesman, a freak of wealth and taste – "the Mephistopheles of Los Angeles," as he dubs himself on one pounding track. It's not always an easy sell, but this is the grabbiest music he's made since 2000's proggy Holy Wood.
Manson wrote these songs with producer Tyler Bates, a movie and video-game composer whose résumé includes plenty of action and horror flicks. The music has a kind of sweeping creepiness that reflects that background. But it's usually pretty grungy, like Nirvana at their blankest or the Doors pulling an all-nighter in Trent Reznor's dungeon. The album opens with "Killing Strangers," a zombified blues crawl with a rusty-hinge riff: "We got guns, you better run," he sings, dredging up memories of the days when right-wing scolds laughably blamed him for the Columbine massacre. Next up is the walloping "Deep Six," a black-clad dance-club banger with Manson working out his Vincent Price baritone as he blathers about Zeus and Narcissus.
Lyrically, Manson plays with all the old themes – power, torture, drugs, sex and violence, dependency and emptiness. But the artist who once called himself a "hand grenade that never stopped exploding" is more focused. The torrid "Slave Only Dreams to Be King" seems to be a genuinely felt song about physical and emotional abuse. Glowering atop the heathen stomp of "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles," Manson seems to be talking to either an imagined talk-show interviewer or perhaps his shrink: "I don't know if I can open up/I'm not a birthday present."
What emerges is a classier record than you might expect from Manson – and one that still manages to be the kind of old-fashioned alt-rock tantrum no one bothers throwing these days. "I got the devil beneath my feet," he sings, belting out the chorus of one of the album's best songs, which sounds like a beach party on the River Styx. For once, you can believe the Dark Lord is happy to have him along for the ride.