Marilyn Manson turned 46 years old earlier this month. Yes, the shock rocker whose music sparked everything from Joe Lieberman political crusades to unreasonable blame for the Columbine High School Massacre during his mid- to late-’90s heyday—that guy. Forty-six. Surprised? You must not have been listening to his recent output.
Over his last few albums, Manson’s music has simply sounded a bit tired. It’s felt tame. Its infamous bite has dulled, both sonically and lyrically. At times, it’s even begun to sound like it was made by someone old enough to have been raising a pitchfork against him back in the day. But that all changes with his newest effort, The Pale Emperor—a fantastic listen that rates as his best work since at least The Golden Age of Grotesque, and possibly even longer.
But let’s just be clear, here: Emperor isn’t a return to the “classic” Marilyn Manson sound. Far from it, in fact. What he’s given us here is a subtler, more nuanced beast. It’s mysterious and bluesy, yet it’s also relatively streamlined; with a run-time of 10 songs and 52 minutes, it’s his shortest album to date. Most importantly, though, it’s more comfortable and “in-its-element” than anything we’ve heard from Manson in a decade-plus.
This is all evident right from the get-go. In “Killing Strangers,” we get a slithering, foot-stomper of an opener that doesn’t quite feel like anything in the band’s back catalogue. It’s hard not to think of mid- or late-period Depeche Mode while listening, (in fact, it might have fit quite well on Ultra) and yet the band powers through with an odd kind of swagger, hardly able to sound any more assured in this uncharted territory.
And while the next track, “Deep Six,” marks a bit of a shift back to familiar Manson territory, the trip back in time is brief; Emperor‘s bread and butter are quite clearly its somber, mid-tempo numbers. The strangely mesmerizing despondence of “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” and the haunting strut of “Cupid Carries a Gun” allow the band to catch your eye through mood and ambience where, in another time, distortion levels and sheer pace might have done the job. He takes this to new levels on the centerpiece, “Warship My Wreck,” adding a touch of anguish to create a truly burdensome listen, with what feels like the weight of the world on his back. It makes for a different kind of sensory assault than he’s doled out before—less rude and aggressive, but still surprisingly potent.
All in all, it’s a pleasure to hear Manson sounding as revitalized as he does on The Pale Emperor. Make no mistake, the sense of vulnerability that events in his personal life had amplified in recent years—and to which his musical output all too often fell victim—is still very much alive and at play. But for the first time, it feels like an asset rather than a hindrance. He’s mastered it, and his music is all the better for it.