Born Villain is Marilyn Manson’s most straightforward album in quite awhile, if not the most straightforward of all his albums to date. Its directness is resonating with fans, who pounced on the first leak to hit the internet, and are now throwing around terms like “comeback.”
This reaction has been almost as interesting to me as the contents of the album. It’s as if Manson let go of all of the sonic decorations that rocketed albums like Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals into the collective heart of his largest fanbase, and in doing so, regained their faith. He couldn’t have possibly been trying to please anyone but himself.
Calling it a comeback is fair in spirit. However, it suggests a return, whereas Born Villain is more accurately described as the completion of a metamorphosis. Only time will tell if this phase will last as long or longer than, say, the Omega and Thaeter incarnations that have come and gone. But on his previous two albums, Eat Me, Drink Me, and The High End Of Low (which earned high marks here), Manson seemed to be weaning himself off of alter-egos, with a human being appearing occasionally, inconsistently.
Part of the allure of studying Manson’s body of work are the paradoxes that started with the arranged marriage of Charlie and Ms. Monroe, of fame and infamy: His inhuman characters have shown us new sides of humanity, his absolutes have shown us where the grey areas are, and the more of a character he became, the more we understood about who he really was. The paradigm shift began with Eat Me, Drink Me, and is now complete: On Born Villain, there is no character, no hesitation, nothing as premeditated as an absolute, and yet by finally committing completely to having no pre-established commitments, there is a cohesion that’s every bit as effective as any of his long-beloved albums, despite the change in formula.
As for the music itself, what’s most striking is the new chain of command among the instruments. Nearly every song on Born Villain is driven almost entirely by the rhythm section. The guitars have their moments to step up, but when they do, the riffs are minimal, and we never hear that wall of noise from Reznor-ian lasagna of deeply layered guitar tracks. More often than not, Twiggy’s in Helmet mode, where the guitar is a percussive instrument. The title track could be considered an exception, but even there, the inventive and infectious guitar riffs that glue everything together just manage to equal the power of the backing beat, never eclipsing it.
That title track and Lay Down Your Goddamn Arms are the standout tracks in the second half of the album, with the latter more focused than its spiritual counterpart from High End, the spastic overstatement Arma-goddamn-motherfuckin-geddon. It’s a vicious, grooving challenge, daring: “Wanna fight? Wanna fuck? Wanna die? Try your luck, lay down your goddamn arms…” The blues-metal riff that dances the lyric along, combined with the subtle lack of pause on either side of “Try your luck” makes the threat convincing.
The first half of Born Villain, on the other hand, is where most of the excitement is coming from. Overneath The Path Of Misery and The Flowers Of Evil are the most memorable on the album, and the two opening tracks, Hey, Cruel World…, and lead single No Reflection have provided positive first impressions for fans and skeptics alike. Flowers Of Evil specifically delivers on Twiggy’s “punk rock Mechanical Animals” promise, slowly building to a perfect, galloping siege.
Every Marilyn Manson album has had a few more songs than were necessary, and a few hard to swallow moments, and Born Villain is no exception. The Gardener opens with Manson whispering a Manson-ism: “I’m not man enough to be human, but I’m trying to fit in, and I’m learning to fake it.” This line, however, is the chorus of the song, and it would bring a more satisfying payoff without the earnest preview. There’s also the alternating verses of spoken word, where Manson is simply reading poetry loosely paced with the beat. It may be too soon after Lulu.
It’s hard not to roll your eyes a little as Manson sings, on Children Of Cain’s pre-chorus, “Don’t assume that I’m always with you, it’s just where my mortal body happens to be.” The passive aggression compromises the otherwise characteristic proclamation from the God of Fuck just enough to inspire a little wince.
At the same time, the extreme active aggression can almost feel like self-parody at times. On Pistol Whipped, Manson sings, “You look so pretty when you cry / Don’t want to hit you but the only thing / between our love is a bloody nose, busted lip / and a blackened eye…” It’s a sexy song, possibly flawless musically, but it’s glorifying domestic violence so baldly, you’re almost disappointed when you get to the end and no clever plot twist has come from Manson’s bag of tricks.
But Born Villain leaves little room in its strategy for that bag of tricks. It’s a head-on attack, a full-court press, a confident, relatively cohesive album. It has a punk ethic that eschews all but a few frivolous adornments, a daring move by an artist that has built an empire largely on production. You can call it a comeback if you’d like, but what’s happening on Born Villain hasn’t happened before. To only call it a return, rather than a step forward, just isn’t giving it enough credit.
Photo by Francesco Carrozzini
For the time being, you can stream the album in its entirety here.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.