Can Marilyn Manson still shock anyone?
Ever since he toned down his act following the Columbine massacre and was replaced by Eminem as the whipping boy of the moral majority, Manson has gradually been transformed from a national threat to an intriguing cult figure.
He dated actress Rose McGowan and burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, appeared on "Politically Incorrect" and was interviewed in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine."
"Hollywood Squares" was not far off.
The first line from Manson's fifth album, The Golden Age of Grotesque, sums up his predicament: "Everything has been said before, nothing left to say anymore/When it's all the same you can ask for it by name" ("This Is the New Sh--").
Realizing he'd need to adapt to survive, Manson parted ways with longtime songwriting partner and bassist Twiggy Ramirez (see "Marilyn Manson Splits With Bassist Twiggy Ramirez") and reinvented his image and music. And now, at a time when he's delving into the literature of the Marquis de Sade and dating a stripper, Manson's music is becoming less dangerous and more decadent (see "Manson Wants To Perform With Siamese Twins For Nude Crowds").
The Golden Age of Grotesque is sleazy and celebratory, injecting Manson's trademark electro-metallic roar with the libertine spirit and Teutonic stomp of Weimar Republic artists like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and the pulsing industrial dance frenzy of bands like KMFDM (for which new programmer and co-producer Tim Skold formerly played).
The first single, "mOBSCENE," is fist-in-mouth bacchanalia with a crooked smile. Manson caps a chugging riff with a braying trombone and includes a cheerleader chorus chant of "Be obscene, be, be obscene."
The title track is a swaying, stomping romp with carnival keyboards and ominous, moaning background vocals, and "Use Your Fist and Not Your Mouth" juxtaposes percussive vocals and clattering drums with dive-bombing guitars.
Instead of filling all the space on the album with insane noises and teeth-gnashing aggression, Manson gives songs like "Para-Noir" and "The Bright Young Things" room to breathe, maintaining low-key beats while ushering guitars, booming bass and whirring electronics in and out of the mix like a symphony conductor.
Expressing less anger leaves Manson more room to get playful with lyrics. On "(s)AINT" he shouts, "What's my name, what's my name?/ Hold the 'S' because I am an 'ain't,' " and on "Slutgarden" he toys with a children's rhyme: "You are the church, I am the steeple/ When we f---, we're all of God's people."
The band's new direction also allows Manson to experiment with more vocal techniques. Sure, there's his quota of undead goth-rock warbling and eardrum-shredding screams, but "The Golden Age of Grotesque" is treated with falsetto wails and salacious trills, and the creepy "Doll-Dagga, Buzz-Buzz, Ziggity-Zag" and the ominous "Ka-boom Ka-boom" both use onomatopoeia to strengthen their impact.
The reviews aren't in yet, but Golden Age just might be considered a golden achievement for Marilyn Manson. At a time when many questioned whether he could continue without Ramirez and others were declaring him irrelevant, the agent provocateur has refocused his energies from his clenched fist to his phallus, and he's done so in a way that's still wicked, nonconformist and musically compelling.