Of all the controversies Marilyn Manson has been in the center of, the only one I’ve ever dignified with a serious discussion is his occasionally contested abilities as a musician.
Many believe he peaked out with Antichrist Superstar, and hasn’t done anything worthwhile since. And with a larger than life, schtick-heavy artist like Manson, there’s a great risk of eventually arriving at the land self-parody.
For example, while I think 90s contemporaries Rage Against The Machine quit right before they wore it out, Green Day’s newest, in my opinion (not to discredit Johnny’s), is one American Idiot too many. And so a new Marilyn Manson album might be one too many, if all it was was a dozen more songs about Satan, blood, sex, drugs and violence.
I love Mechanical Animals, and I think Holy Wood & The Golden Age Of Grotesque were extremely underrated. 2007’s Eat Me, Drink Me is Britney Bernstein’s favorite of all, for a very valid reason; It’s a bravely raw, personal, album – it was Manson at his most vulnerable and honest, by far. While I recognize and appreciate that, the music was not on par with the lyrics and vocals. I found it to be a low point in that sense.
With Twiggy Ramirez returning to the fold for High End Of Low, and a single called Arma-Goddamn-Motherfuckin-Geddon, my hopes were high for a return to form. The only question was if songs like I Have To Look Up Just To See Hell would bring musical achievement to match the song-naming achievement, or if the clichés would be left standing naked in the cold. It’s a fine line to walk. And the first track to be released, We’re From America, didn’t excite me.
The album opens with Devour, which I expected to be nothing more than a prologue, given Manson’s affinity for setting the scene with spooky noises and the like. It starts with an understated guitar hitting some high notes, very reminiscent of A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step album, not to make any accusations. Lyrically, Manson throws right down the center: I’ll swallow up all of you like / a big bottle of big big pills… You’re not crying / this is blood all over me… Then the lead drops out to footnote the chorus, where Manson howls, And I’ll love you / if you let me / And I’ll love you / if you won’t / make me stop… It’s almost as if he’s teasing you, picking up right where the last album left off – and maybe he is. Or perhaps he’s just threatening to do it all over again, for anyone out there that might assume he has any regrets. But then the song explodes, screaming, over and over, The pain is not ashamed to repeat itself / I can’t sleep until I devour you!
So that’s how the stage is set, and then comes the onslaught we’ve all be hoping for. Pretty As A Swastika obviously has a fair share of shocking, oh-so-Marilyn-Manson imagery at the core, introducing a play on symbols where the US dollar sign stands-in for the swastika, which we’ll see more of in a bit. But the rock song written around it is dynamic and hooky. It’s not one of the most outstanding tracks on the album, but it confirms that there’s a bite to go with the bark.
Leave A Scar follows, which had previously leaked with the title May Be Harmful If Swallowed. It’s centered around another bold Manson-ism; Whatever doesn’t kill you / is gonna leave a scar. But it’s a mature composition, as the beat drills the song through alternating electric and acoustic verses, aerodynamic pre-choruses, and screaming choruses. This one is an outstanding track, as is the follow-up, Four Rusted Horses, with a swaggering, bluesy acoustic guitar riff that warrants a crossroads analogy I can’t quite come up with.
With a name like Arma-Goddamn-Motherfuckin-Geddon, you expect Marilyn Manson to pull out all the stops. And he does, calling for nothing less than the end of humanity, while more subtly calling back to Golden Age Of Grotesque with a swinging vaudevillian rhythm. For the hell of it, we did something we normally don’t do, and checked out the “clean” version of the song. It sounded like a bad drive-thru speaker, or a 50 Cent song on the radio – every other word missing. Here’s the “dirty” version:
Blank And White is another pleasant surprise. It starts off basically straightforward, with Manson in typical form, threatening to choke the world, over a bassline that builds to a battle song of sorts. But the chorus brings an interesting new sound; with subtle piano highlighting the power chords, the band nods towards the Rolling Stones.
I Want To Kill You Like They Do In The Movies has a similar structure, but with a brooding goth-rock tone. Unfortunately, it drags on a bit too long, and together with the indescribably bad head-scratcher WOW, comprises, well, the lowest point of The High End Of Low.
Fortunately, the aforementioned I Have To Look Up Just To See Hell is indeed worth such an audacious name, as I had hoped. It’s a essentially a power dirge, but the vocal rhythm is constructed for a pop song, keeping you on board through sparsely placed hooks that lead into a chorus that defies the odds by not coming off as overly contrived.
Running To The Edge Of The World, Unkillable Monster and Into The Fire provide the album’s ballad relief, all mostly acoustic, with Manson waxing poetic over drawn out passages and solos. Into The Fire is the superior of the bunch, but none wear out their welcome in between the ragers.
The bottom line is that whatever you may have to say about Marilyn Manson as a person, as a demon, as a cultural icon, relevant or not, he’s a true artist, that continues to produce good albums. He shows no signs of abandoning the image & schtick that has always been central to his artistic expression, and in fact this newest album may feature more Manson-isms and controversial sound bites than any other. At the very least, they’re far less hidden than the usual. And many actually seemed to be designed to be dramatically, soberly repeated on television by a concerned parents’ advocacy group.
But contrary to what the naysayers and shit-talkers may have to say about Manson’s modus operandi, you can’t build a career on astonishing sound bites alone. If that’s all there was to the guy, we’d all just have a chuckle and leave it at that. You know, like we do when Ted Nugent speaks.
The High End Of Low may not be quite the masterpiece that Antichrist Superstar was, especially given the latter’s perfect timing. But it’s an accomplishment, effectively signing a new lease on Marilyn Manson’s artistic relevancy.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.