This might have been a posthumous release (and review) if his stage accident over the weekend had been fatal, and thankfully that’s not the case. But had the worst happened, Heaven Upside Down is the kind of career-defining record that Marilyn Manson just might want to leave as his last great opus anyway. It’d be ironic, of course, because themes of mortality, hell, and the devil (usually personified by Manson himself) are his stock in trade, but either way they’re milked for all their menacing glory on this, his 10th full-length release.
The album was going to be called “SAY 10”, which is one of its more nuanced tracks, a hypnotic, slow-building throbber that sees Manson conjuring his signature wicked whisper and almost rapping to the beat before exploding, sort of a reverse of the skin-crawlingly cool dread that ends his first big hit, the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” cover. Manson is always more tempestuous when he’s slowing down the tempo, and “Say 10” is almost a classic amalgamation of his most affective musical proclivities — rapturous repetition, blasphemous lyricism, and mostly voracious vocals that complement and ultimately command a melody whether it’s frenzied or languid, assaulting or simply atmospheric.
You might recall he released a short teaser video directed by Tyler Shields for the song just before election day. It opened with Manson reading then tearing pages out of the Bible and ended with a decapitated body in a pool of blood. The body was obviously Donald Trump, red tie and all, and while the clip got some attention, the outrage was lost in the flurry and real fear of election week. Of course, Shields’ photo shoot with Kathy Griffin later was a whole other story. Which raises the question: what kind of world do we live in where Kathy Griffin is more shocking and offensive than Marilyn Manson?
Of course, we expect dark imagery and scandalous themes these days from the 48-year-old formerly known as Brian Warner, so he has a lot to live up to. Most of Heaven Upside Down’s caustic and layered compositions (standouts: the new single “We Know Where You Fucking Live”, “Kill 4Me”, and the title track) appear to be an earnest attempt at doing just that. There was probably some pressure to match the intensity and experimentation of his mostly critically praised last release, The Pale Emperor, as well, and this one nails that while also hearkening to older material off Portrait of an American Family and Holy Wood.
Film-scoring ace Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 & 2 and all of Rob Zombie’s movies) obviously had some significant influence on Emperor’s overall mood and aesthetic, and his guitar and keyboard work here have a similarly cinematic quality that works well with the subject matter and as a kind of full-circle survey of the sinister superstar himself. Manson’s dramatic flair has always been suited to filmic freakiness. His turns on video and as an actor and co-scorer (with Bates on the flick John Wick) prove he has the timing and gift for tension and tone to take his livelihood to theatrical new heights if he so chooses.
But at the end of the day (or rather edge of the night), Manson is a rocker delighting in dissonant, spooky soundscapes and creepy, metallic clatter. Banging industrial beats, taunting guitars, and beefy bass lines (for this one served up by returning original MM member and longtime Manson bestie Twiggy Ramirez) will always be part of the brutal brew whether he’s screaming or crooning. The record’s bombastic opening track, “Revelation #12”, stridently sets his intentions, waking things up with the requisite raucousness. Then things get groovy (“Tattooed in Reverse”), gothy (“Saturnalia”), sexy (“Je$us Cri$is”), and finally, kinda sensitive (“Threats of Romance”) … and it all works on different levels.
This is a record that should please both the Hot Topic kiddie-creep contingent and Manson’s more seasoned and sophisticated fans sonically. Lyrically, it captures a lot of his oddball charm, too — his humor and stream-of-consciousness thought process (read any recent interview), his propensity for puns and weird wordplay, his bravado and bodaciousness, and his fetishistic outlook on life and politics. The guy is complex; that’s for sure, but for all the shock, schlock, and ghoulish grandiosity, there’s a realness and vulnerability about Marilyn Manson that seems to seep through a little more as he ages, and with every subsequent release. It’s no accident Heaven Upside Down’s cover shows him sans makeup.
Injuries and missteps aside, Manson’s proven himself to be an enduringly eclectic performer over the years. He might not be ready for heaven (or hell) just yet, but while he’s in between, his latest seems to suggest that his view of the world and his work in general will always be a bit upside down and over-the-top, twisted, extreme, and dangerous, too — if not always for the listener, then at least for its creator.
Essential Tracks: “We Know Where You Fucking Live”, “Kill 4Me”, and “Heaven Upside Down”