To anyone just getting acquainted with Marilyn Manson, it would perhaps seem strange that he was once a figure of genuine controversy. This is a man whose entire artistic identity and persona stems from a combination of a sex icon and a serial killer, and who was scapegoated as responsible for the Columbine massacre, and yet lately, he’s morphed into a bloated, unthreatening pastiche of his former self. Sure, it’s harder to really shock people nowadays, but Manson’s recent attempts have just seemed so unconvincing and uninspired, when they were even there at all. For a while now, it’s felt like the God Of Fuck couldn’t give less of one.
The good news is that, on Heaven Upside Down, Manson at least comes across as more committal, though committing to being a full-blown self-parody probably isn’t the best way to go. For his tenth album, Manson’s going back to his original mission statement of a soundtrack for the disenfranchised outcasts, but because it’s 2017, this time it involves spouting out edgelord vocab that can be amusing at best and entirely played-out everywhere else.
Perhaps that’s not exactly true; there’s always something inherently fascinating about Manson when he draws on biblical imagery (even if he doesn’t always know what to do with it), and making such thorough references to the titular book on Revelation #12 at least ensures that there’s some stable ground to start the album off on. But beyond that, so much of Heaven Upside Down feels clogged with Manson hammering the sex or the shock factor into the ground, and if it’s meant to be provocative, it’s really not. The closest it comes is in KILL4ME‘s references to self-harm (“Sideways for attention, longways for results”), but for the most part, this album plays out like a watered-down compilation of Manson’s most overt characteristics; the BDSM imagery of Blood Honey is particularly clumsy against industrial instrumentation that slows down to a crawl; WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE serves as another call to arms for the underclass to stand against a corrupt world in what feels like a lesser taken on The Fight Song; and while JE$U$ CRI$I$‘s summation of Manson’s modus operandi is blunt enough (“I write songs to fight and to fuck to / If you wanna fight then I’ll fight you / If you wanna fuck I will fuck you”), it’s such a flat, curt statement that it carries none of the intended bile or weight.
Of course, Manson himself doesn’t exactly help in this department, and while this is far from the worst he’s ever sounded, his range hasn’t really expanded and still feels desperately limited to what he can convey. As always, he’s at his best when showing some more overt rage and feeding a similar angst to that in the lyrics into his delivery, and thus, for as underwritten as WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE can be (and perhaps to a lesser extent SAY10 and JE$U$ CRI$I$), they’re buoyed by a delivery that’s workable in terms of its heft. That’s more than can be said for a track like Saturnalia, where Manson plays up his own croaking lower range to make its already eight-minute runtime drag even more, or Threats Of Romance, a distinctly underwhelming closer where Manson sounds beyond caring. As much as this very understated, dead-eyed delivery might be in line with his career path so far, when it’s brought back here, it feels like Manson trying to replicate and fall in line with expectations, and even while you can argue that he’s successful, it doesn’t exactly make this already slow album feel any more dynamic.
At least in terms of instrument construction, Heaven Upside Down has far more consistent success, grasping the industrial grind and darkness that’s a prerequisite for this sort of thing, and with Tyler Bates once again behind the production desk, that theatrical, cinematic underpinning that comes in his film scores bleeds across to here. At its best, Heaven Upside Down has some of Manson’s most interesting and engaging compositions in some time, like the clanking, industrial clinicalness of SAY10, the sunken bassline and blues licks of KILL4ME or the jagged glam-punk of Revelation #12. Even if a convincing sense of menace isn’t always achieved in the lyrics or delivery, Heaven Upside Down at the very least can capture that darker atmosphere on its deepest level, and does it fairly well at that. It’s refreshing to see that any low points are in the minority this time, too; there’s the unappealing thud of Tattooed In Reverse or the flattened glam-rock of the title track that don’t amount to much, but outside of those examples, Heaven Upside Down at least sounds like a compellingly dark listen at its core.
It’s just a shame that so much more of it couldn’t have had the same effect; maybe then this would have been a more fully-formed listen. As it stands, Heaven Upside Down is far from Marilyn Manson’s worst album and at least sees him heading in a direction that’s more workable in the vein of his ’90s material, but even so, this is still pretty far from that. When Manson isn’t playing up the stereotypes of himself, he’s delivering the most generalised version of his own persona possible, steering away from the ideal middle ground that would’ve made this a far superior album. At least there’s some bite here – more than can be said for the majority of his last few albums – but the speed at which this advancement is taking place at is negligible to any long-term effects.
For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Deftones, Killing Joke
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Heaven Upside Down’ by Marilyn Manson is out now on Loma Vista Recordings.