By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
--"The Reflecting God"
If you die when there's no one watching Then your ratings drop and you're forgotten But if they kill you on their TV You're a martyr and a lamb of God
--"Lamb of God"
Manson's lyrics personalize his concepts and his emotions, make them resonate. And his music strikes mind, heart and body: Most people who've pegged him solely as a heavy-metal moshmaster have never heard any of it, or were distracted enough by his weird images that it didn't sink in. That's too bad, because Manson's most impressive growth has been as a musician.
And his music has never been bad. Manson first reached a mass audience in 1994 with his major-label debut, Portrait of an American Family, which, though uneven, features great rock songs such as the hooky "Lunchbox" (about one kid's choice of schoolyard weapon) and the horrific "Get Your Gunn" (themed after Dr. David Gunn, the abortionist murdered by an activist), both of which the band still plays in concert. The next full-length offering, Smells Like Children -- a cut-up of covers ("Sweet Dreams," "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger"), remixes, sound experiments, prank phone calls and other oddities -- is worth hearing at least once while stoned.
Then he broke through. Somehow, after heroic drug abuse, bitter infighting and epic time-wasting in decadent New Orleans, Marilyn Manson barfed up Antichrist Superstar in 1996, and it turned out to be just what grunge-weary American youth had been waiting for. It's harsh. It's hateful. It's energetic. It's loaded with anthems. It's the one fans can't get over, the one they want to hear again and again.
Manson himself, though, when the time came to put the next album together, wanted something new. He was pushing 30. He was growing up, and he felt ready, for the first time since he was a child, to feel. He endured prolonged stretches without drugs. He thought about what it means to be a human being, about the dreadful risk of love, and about the role of a rock star. Changing co-producers from the industrial-minded Trent Reznor to the more laissez-faire pop craftsman Michael Beinhorn, Manson and band made Mechanical Animals, which switched back and forth between full-bore rock ("Rock Is Dead") and exquisite beauty ("The Last Day on Earth"), devoting the maximum of songwriting skills, studio polish and pure passion to both. Released in 1998, Mechanicalis one of the greatest albums of its decade. Naturally, fans were puzzled by it and critics weren't ready for it. But Manson had attained full command of his art.
After beginning as a yeller, he's even become an extremely expressive singer. "I absolutely did not deserve to have a record deal, the way that I sounded," he says. But he never sought professional guidance. "It's just practice over the years. I was always afraid to take lessons, because I thought that they would unlearn the rawness, the characteristics that made it likable. I think that I've kind of come into my own."
The year of Columbine saw the release of a live album, The Last Tour on Earth -- a powerful document of a band that walked through fire, as well as an ideal summation of what Manson is about; the curious listener should start here. And into the middle of November's presidential election fell Holy Wood, with Manson himself co-producing along with engineer Dave Sardy, and a new sound-manipulating partner entering the picture in the form of Nitzer Ebb's Bon Harris. While its spiritual theme and its layering of violent musical and political images from around the time of his birth attain the highest level of conceptual complexity yet, it simultaneously reaffirms all Manson's other virtues and completes a trilogy of studio albums that ranks with anybody's best. He's been rewarded by a condemnation from the Catholic League.
Meanwhile, Manson has subjected a bagful of other arts to his full treatment. His stage props, makeup, clothes and lighting are extravagant and artistic. His promo videos, directed with a surrealist fashion-show sense of composition and color by the likes of E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire), R&B video director Paul Hunter and veteran D.P. Samuel Bayer, don't look like anything else on MTV; in fact, they're the only thing on the network worth watching. Two tour-documentary videos, Dead to the World and God Is in the TV (the latter also featuring all the Manson promo clips), are twisted, tightly edited and fascinating. Manson has always taken painstaking care with his photo images; Holy Wood, in particular, is an art book as well as a CD, and its photographer, P.R. Brown, will be exhibiting his collaborations with Manson in Hollywood this month. Before we leave the visual realm, it should be noted that Manson draws well and is also a remarkably distinctive painter.
Now to the verbal side. Manson's 1998 autobiography with Neil Strauss, The Long Hard Road out of Hell, is the most self-abasing and funny piece of rock mythology ever written. A Manson-penned novel based on Holy Wood will be published soon. His interviews, which he considers as important as his songs, flesh out his ideas with wit and concision. And his Web site, www.marilyn manson.com, is swollen with regularly updated info, as well as a sampling of choice Manson propaganda: "Is adult entertainment killing our children, or is killing our children entertaining adults?"