I wonder why the New York Times last month dubbed Marilyn Manson's new "The Pale Emperor" "the biggest leap" and why his upstart label head called it "fresh"? To me it's just Manson moaning and ranting his slippery wordplay the way he always does, just with less equipment -- a measured retreat rather than a leap. It's surprising that the album turned out so well, considering all the limbs he chopped off.
Cutting every link to his '90s band, Manson partnered with soundtrack guy Tyler Bates, who's not as good a songwriter as Twiggy Ramirez, not as good a guitarist as John 5, not as good a noisemaker as Pogo and not as good a producer as Michael Beinhorn, who knobbed Manson's best slab, "Mechanical Animals" (1998). The drums are mostly by a computer, who is not as good a drummer as Ginger Fish, and the beats echoing previous hits such as "The Beautiful People" and "The Dope Show" don't make "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" and "Birds of Hell Awaiting" as good as their models. Manson's wonderfully illegible new logo is not even as good as the Nine Inch Nails logo it copies. The nasty sandpaper texture of the CD cover is fresh, though.
"Emperor" does possess plenty of credits, or maybe anti-debits. It's not as rote as "The Golden Age of Grotesque" (2003), or as unfocused as "Eat Me, Drink Me" (2007), or as lugubrious as "The High End of Low" (2007), or as undisciplined as "Born Villain" (2012). But I like "Eat Me" and "Villain" better because of the tunes and the electricity level.
The vaunted blues accents on "Pale Emperor"? Yeah, Manson taps that wellspring a bit more than usual -- on the simple slop of "Killing Strangers" and the slow drag of "Odds of Even." The references are formal rather than felt, of course; he's never been a Delta sharecropper or a Chicago barfly, even if "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge" does drip a bit of zombie soul.
Manson must have noticed that, spare as the production runs on most of the record, his well-turned and wringingly delivered lyrics ("Lazarus got no dirt on me, and I rise to every occasion") were sometimes getting obscured in the industrial smog. So he pulled off a nice twist by inserting a minute and a half of silence after "Odds" and following it up with a kind of EP -- three acoustic reprises of songs selected from the first 10. On the one hand, the arid format makes the words pop straight into your head; on the other hand, it highlights the rudimentary quality of the songwriting. Despite having to fight off ghosts of America's tacky 1972 Neil Young ripoff "Horse With No Name," I did especially dig the brisk trot of "Fated, Faithful, Fatal," the reduction of "Mephistopheles."
Fave track: the stomping disco rocker "Deep Six," with its hilarious line "You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus? 'You better watch yourself.'"