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Marilyn Manson : The Pale Emperor

★★★★☆ 

There’s always been a darkness to Marilyn Manson’s music – duh – but it’s usually been more of a ‘Halloween in the Hellfire Club’ kind of darkness. The Pale Emperor is probably the darkest album of Manson’s career but for entirely different reasons. Remember the scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou where the guys are digging their own graves in the middle of nowhere as a blind guy sings a mournful song about how everybody goes out alone? Take the uncomfortable, “Oh man, I just wanted to watch a movie and now I’m thinking about my mortality,” feeling and funnel into a dirty, angry, cynical rock album, and you have a bit of an idea what’s going on here.
 
For his ninth album, Manson has partnered up with composer Tyler Bates (Californication, Guardians of the Galaxy, 300, Salem) and stripped everything back to the bone. Instead of industrial rock textures, there are guitars that alternate between brash, bashy chords and lowdown lonesome melodies straight out of ‘80s goth rock. Manson’s voice continues to shift through a variety of characterisations, but there’s something about this one that feels more vulnerable and damaged, and maybe closer to who he really is underneath the makeup and imagery. That’s not to say you can’t play spot the influence. In some ways, this album reads as what would happen if David Bowie, Tom Waits and Nick Cave got up on stage at a goth club in New Orleans in the ‘30s.
 
This is an album that demands attention and to be listened to all the way through, but the first four songs in particular are a hell of a suite on their own, bookended by Killing Strangers and The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles – both of which feel like they could’ve come from some alternate universe version of David Bowie’s The Next Day – and with the driving Joy Division-like rhythm of Deep Six and The Birthday Party-ish hangover soundtrack of Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge. Cupid Carries A Gun is another standout, which offsets stacked Manson vocals with eerie acoustic guitars and a drum beat right out of ‘70s glam. The Devil Beneath My Feet is also informed by this glam aesthetic. It’s something Manson has incorporated in the past (Mechanical Animals was loaded with it) but in this dirtier, looser context it feels fresh.
 
It felt like Manson was searching a little during recent albums, not quite able to locate and settle in to wherever it is he belongs. In some ways that can be very compelling, but the last few records have felt like Manson was trying things on and experimenting with shifting the emphasis on different areas of his musical personality. On The Pale Emperor, and with Tyler Bates as a collaborative influence, he's found a place that feels unforced and fully realised. You’re not supposed to be putting out one of best albums of your career when you’re this deep into it, but that’s what Marilyn Manson has done.
 
BY PETER HODGSON