For pure American pathos, nothing matches The Jenny Jones Show when it turns its sights on Marilyn Manson fans. These gentle suburban children, owlish and soft beneath their meticulous black finery, are so eager to serve their Antichrist Superstar that they let their confused parents drag them before the warrior queen of pastel conventionality. And there they are slaughtered by Jenny and her audience, grown-up versions of the popular kids who persecute them daily. Eventually they are banished backstage, where a makeover artist strips them of their glamour; they return as the misfits they were before Manson offered them dignity.
Does Marilyn Manson sometimes sit alone in front of the television in his Los Angeles manse and watch those sweet youths burn for him? Mechanical Animals, Manson’s attempt to transform shock into mainstream rock, suggests that he might. The album, co-produced by Michael Beinhorn, has a radio-ready clarity reminiscent of his work on Soundgarden’s Superunknown and Hole’s Celebrity Skin. It also bears a blade-bright shine that may have been inspired by Manson’s pal Billy Corgan. But its emotional tone emanates from the compassionate egotist who saw his chance in the failure of today’s weirdos to stand up for themselves. His last album, Antichrist Superstar, spoke for those tongue-tied adventurers; Mechanical Animals turns toward them in sadness and in love.
“They slit our throats like we were flowers, and our milk has been devoured,” Manson moans over a Pink Floyd-ish acoustic-guitar fill on “The Speed of Pain,” one of many songs that mourn an innocent passion. These apocalyptic romances, vast and vague enough to wallow in, pit Manson and his beloved (a girl? a drug? no, it’s you, dear fan) against the world. Most dwell on final scenes: “The Last Day on Earth,” “Coma White,” “Posthuman,” “Disassociative.” They suggest a banishment from the garden, a betrayal so fundamental that it can barely be remembered. The chemical abuse, the coldly functional sex and the bitter cynicism Manson describes elsewhere are all motivated by this loss.
This fantasy of ultimate alienation is deeply adolescent, but the twenty-nine-year-old Manson isn’t deluding himself. He is reaching back to those fans who might think his new life as a Hollywood fixture, replete with a sexy actress girlfriend and cool pals like the guitarist Dave Navarro (who plays on one track here), may have lifted him from their midst. By presenting Manson as a ghost in the elite world he has conquered, Mechanical Animals maintains his allegiance to the outcasts who put him there.
Manson came to fame by crafting a worldview from various vulgar origins: pornography, horror movies, comic books, storefront occultism, Gothic rock and heavy metal. He blended the musical genres where those subjects found expression: not just goth and 1970s-style metal, but death metal, prog rock and industrial music. Combining all these derided elements, Manson became the Hero With a Thousand Ugly Faces. Cultivating this role made his music matter in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise. No other artist had devoted himself so fully to fighting conservative attacks on rock. Antichrist Superstar was an excellent album, with lots of personality and a soundscape that stretched the limits of hard rock. But Manson’s ability to stand up for his sources made it a cultural event.
Musically, Mechanical Animals places that event within rock’s history of decadents. T. Rex get a nod in the kicky cabaret chorus of “The Dope Show,” but Manson’s glam godfather is clearly David Bowie. (Manson also still owes some thanks to his absent mentor, Trent Reznor, who had the Bowie fixation first and whose aggressive inventiveness remains influential here.) Manson reworks the sass of Bowie’s “TVC 15” on “I Want to Disappear,” but mostly he sticks to the sepulchral brooding of the Scary Monsters phase — he even starts off the album floating in space just like old Major Tom. Such clear markers make Mechanical Animals seem more classical than derivative. Like Bowie, Manson presents himself as an actor, his mimicry a necessary part of his costume dramas.
Glam lends Manson some important vocal props and outfits, but Mechanical Animals does not adhere to that era’s playful mood. Its ultimate sources are the goths: Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and early Cure. Mechanical Animals gets its cavelike spaciousness from these influences and tweaks them with an industrial crunch, an arena-rock guitar solo or a soulful backing vocal. Goth was glam’s lonely heir, born into a conservative era instead of a decadent one, forced to struggle for regard from the beginning. Manson appreciates goth’s power to make misfits feel like self-styled tragedians. He and his band approach its terrain the way a 1960s rocker like Eric Clapton approaches the blues, with respect and a sense of entitlement: When he wails in his bitter baritone about the mutant longing of his lost soul, the echo of a Gary Numan-esque keyboard drifting behind him, Manson extends a time-honored fantasy. Such nightmares are comfort to the initiated. Returning to his roots on Mechanical Animals, Marilyn Manson has made an album that reassures his followers that he still belongs to them, and they to him.