It makes you want to take the phone off the hook in the morning and drink all day and pass out with your headphones on and almost a smile on your face. It turns your solitude and misery into a giant bag of candy. It validates your emptiness. Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals: not just for scarred adolescents – it's rock music for everyone.
Everyone feels like a used tissue sometimes. Even happily married people with children and friends and jobs they like. And plenty of people feel that way all the time. Manson is your martyr: the chest carver, the trashman, the prophet of pain, offering a chance to indulge yourself past whatever bad moment you're in, turning his lead and yours into gold. That's some trick.
This emotional alchemy is what the blues used to be about, and better than anyone else in 1998, Manson takes blues and torch songs – modes the album echoes again and again – and radically jacks them around, the way Zeppelin and Prince did in their time, to fit the kind of creature we are now, the mechanical animal of the title, alone in cyberspace. I felt closest to the spirit of the thing the day before it was released, when I was previewing songs on the official Manson Internet site. It was the day the Starr report was released, and there was a lot of interference. The night before, Manson had performed, appropriately, “The Dope Show” on the MTV Video Music Awards, and while downloading that lumbering cabaret blues I wondered whether the dropouts and washes of white noise might be part of the recording – they sounded right, and when I got the CD the next day, I discovered less-extreme noise all over it. But the washes were really the buffering and buffeting of millions of curious human fingers, making their anonymous, inadvertent electronic presence felt. When I tried to link to “The Ultimate Marilyn Manson Site,” there was a jerk and a fade, I found myself at a site offering a Starr download (truly the ultimate), and my computer froze. Like it or not, this scenario represents some kind of planetary community. Some kind.
And Manson wants to be part of it. On his MTV meet-the-fans half-hour, The Marilyn Manson Show, he emphasized that writing this year's autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, changed him; it seems that a forced review of his abuses, manipulations, hurts and revenges gave him perspective and, as confessions will, humbled him some. Up to the present, his main artistic tool has been hate: the balls-out defiance of Portrait of an American Family, the in-your-face cacophony of Smells Like Children, the apocalyptic rage of Antichrist Superstar. But, confronted with the accusations of religious acolytes on The Marilyn Manson Show (Aren't you anti-Christian? Aren't you blasphemous?), he disarmed them with a few gentle words, saying he would never criticize a person's chosen path and explaining that where he used to compare himself to Lucifer, now he's exploring his similarities to Jesus. He admitted he set out to be superhuman, but he's decided he needs to be human first.
Marilyn Manson, the unrelenting yeller, has become a singer. There have been hints of how expressive he could be: his slimy cover of Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the Anthony-Newley-in-a-factory balladeering of “Man That You Fear,” the bawling self-pity of “Tourniquet.” But on Mechanical Animals, his Richard Butler-David Bowie croak-groan is right there, delivering the melody and the nuance, on every tune. And he's really, really good.
It's hard to imagine a more impressive opening than “Great Big White World.” Building from a whisper as he shuffles through what sounds like an escape down a hospital corridor, Manson ends up shouting over slow, inevitable guitar hugenesses: “My stitches itch/My prescription's low/I wish you were queen/Just for today,” and you hear the desperation and feel him reaching out – this is one love song that convinces. On “Fundamentally Loathsome,” he torches his way through a mounting 3/4 ballad, resignation and self-abasement resonating in every note. And you can't miss the frustration, the disgust – at himself, at the world – and a mess of subtler emotions as he chants, “A pill to make you numb/A pill to make you dumb” on the final “Coma White.”
He has help. Not exactly musician-mag cover boys, the Marilyn Manson band members have nevertheless evolved into a formidable unit that deposits the tonnage time after time. String-bender Twiggy Ramirez and keyboard thing Madonna Wayne Gacy, both in the carnival since the first album in 1994, wrote most of the music, which exhibits considerable craft, and not just the witch variety. Between those two and more recent addition Zim Zum on guitar, they insert the dozens of perfect riffs that define the difference between fully developed rock and generic grunge. And Ginger Fish has got to be one of the world's most unappreciated drummers: Observe the scatter-handed drive of “Great Big White World” and the way the beats fight the vocals – hardware vs. human – on the title song.
The sound . . . godamighty. It's not the obsessive steel hammering overseer Trent Reznor lent to previous albums, but I still don't advise exposing yourself to more than half the CD at a sitting. When I arrived at store's opening with sweaty 20 in fist, the clerk was skeptical: “Are you sure you want to listen to this this early in the morning?” As produced by Manson and Michael Beinhorn (“He smoked cigars, spent a lot of money,” Manson told MTV when asked about Beinhorn's role), Mechanical Animals does all the things digital sound does best: cuts, slugs, gives you a pounding headache. It avoids being just another gloom record because it was made by rockers and decorated by interior designers, not the other way around. Its triumph is that, especially on the slower songs, it also massages those abdominal regions where ambiguous emotions reside.
Mechanical Animals has inspired apt comparisons to David Bowie's 1974 Diamond Dogs, for me the first album that embodied the lure of sleaze. An alienated shithead of 23 who'd just moved to L.A., I couldn't figure why Bowie's dystopia of filth, corruption and predation was called a “Future Legend” – if I walked out my front door, I'd slip in it. Which was a big reason I was here, I guess. Since I had the luxury of keeping one foot out, though, my response to those who were fully engulfed was equal parts revulsion, voyeurism and empathy. Manson wants you to acknowledge the first two so you can reach the last. What he understands, and what enables this supposed pervert to speak to a broad spectrum, is that nobody's clean. You might not connect directly with the fucks and pills of the lyrics, but the sonic dirt feels like your dirt, rich as the dust behind your couch cushions. The right kind of defilement – Manson's deep layers of synth fur and effects serving the function of Bowie's self-played guitar slop – just might suck you into a new head space.
It's a complex experience, rolling around in Manson's ditch. Just as often as I feel like boozing, I feel like aerobicizing. Unlike so much of the “decadent” music I lapped up as a youth – the Bowie and Alice Cooper and Johnny Thunders – Mechanical Animals doesn't make gutter-dredging seem like either a frivolous diversion or a way of life. It's just another human compulsion, deep and unavoidable.
Whether he practices it I don't know, but, at 29, Marilyn Manson has begun to preach Christian love. Deep down, he's a moralist – he just wants to differentiate between real morals and artificially imposed ones. In response to a “white world” where “we are drained of colors,” he's turned himself and his band into gaudy, languid unisex robots that know how to suffer. Identifying with such familiar toys is pretty easy, easier than with some ancient idol on a cross – and Manson is, in fact, offering himself as an alternative to that idol. Call it blasphemy if you want; I call it a tribute.