Review: Marilyn Manson – WE ARE CHAOS

Listening to a new album by a favorite artist is like getting coffee with an old friend you haven’t seen in a few years and hoping they haven’t turned into a total cunt in the time that’s elapsed. Sometimes, you pray for it to be over and find yourself content with the memories of a time gone past. And in some instances, you pick up like you’d just hung out yesterday and find yourselves still on the same page.

Fortunately, Marilyn Manson’s latest album, WE ARE CHAOS, falls into the latter category.

Full disclosure: Marilyn Manson holds a special place in my heart as one of the few bands I got in on from the very beginning. Okay, not the Spooky Kids era, but Portrait of An American Family, so that counts for something, right? “Lunchbox” was a revelation and as close to a national anthem as it got for me when I first heard it back in 1994.

Marilyn Manson has been one of the few artists whose music has remained a constant companion and a figure I still respect as both a creative force and a person. As I grew older, so did Manson. The Artist Sometimes Known as Brian Warner didn’t cling to shock rock, unfettered rage, and youth. (Although greasepaint and black lipstick are eternal.) Rather, his music evolved, as did the mythology of Marilyn Manson, reflecting different sides of the man behind the creation who dealt with personal, professional, and romantic breakups, as well as the loss of parents and loved ones. Those things change a man and his music.

Despite the spook show theatrics, Manson’s music has always felt personal. While I haven’t loved all of his work (*cough* Born Villain and the uneven Eat Me, Drink Me), many of his albums — including the sorely underrated The High End of Low — have been soundtracks to various checkpoints in my life.

Getting Acquainted with Manson’s Latest Album: WE ARE CHAOS

WE ARE CHAOS was completed back in January 2020, but damned if it doesn’t feel like Marilyn Manson had a crystal ball giving him a glimpse into the events of this year.

When the disc’s title track was released at the tail end of July, it gave me chills. The jangly acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals felt like a love song for the pandemic era, combing elements of vintage Mechanical Animals-era Manson with the sound of newer albums, Heaven Upside Down and The Pale Emperor. “WE ARE CHAOS” blends David Bowie, The Beatles, and a dash of Frank Reynolds with lyrics like, “In the end we all end up in a garbage dump / But I’ll be the one that’s holding your hand.”

For the first time in at least a decade, I got that same giddy, teenage rush of excitement — eager to hear what the rest of the album sounded like.

If there’s one thing The QuaranTimes has taught me, it’s that you have to find those little pockets of joy to savor. I made a ritual of listening to WE ARE CHAOS in perfect solitude on the morning of its release, giving it my full attention with zero distractions.

Echoing that same sentiment, a line from one of the new tracks, “SOLVE COAGULA,” stood out: “So, you think you can sing or clap / Well, all you need is an ear / So listen.” Right now, in the waning months of 2020, this was the time to listen with fresh ears.

With a new album, there’s no familiarity with the material. And in a year with no concerts, there’s no standing shoulder to shoulder with other fans — or having to contend with antagonistic, beer-swilling Wookies blocking your view and incoherently bellowing lyrics so loud you can’t hear the emotion of the artist onstage. On WE ARE CHAOS, Manson offers an opportunity to listen like you did when you were young and discover buried treasure in the notes and lyrics. I mean, hey, what else have you got to do?

In a recent interview, Manson noted that WE ARE CHAOS was sort of a choose-your-own-adventure concept album:

I wanted the record to be a book. I’ve imagined I just filled all the pages with mirrors and you fill in your own story when you listen to it. It’s a concept record that tells a story that’s going to be different for every single person, including me, every time I hear it, but it’s definitely, there’s an arc to it. I’m still wrapping my head around it because it’s still new to me, but I always ask people, ‘Do you get a happy ending from it or is it a sad ending or is it tragic?’

It sounded a bit like the ending to the Bruce Lee-conceived flick, Circle of Iron. I was intrigued and prepared to take that journey to find out what was in that book.

Influences on WE ARE CHAOS

The title track was just a taste of things to come on WE ARE CHAOS. Of all of the previous installments in Manson’s catalog, it feels closest to Mechanical Animals — and is just as heavily influenced by David Bowie as it’s spiritual predecessor.

The disc’s sound is also heavily influenced by Manson’s latest man-muse, Shooter Jennings, who produced and co-wrote the album.  The duo initially paired on Jennings’ cover of Bowie’s “Cat People,” with Manson providing guest vocals. It was an early indicator that the outlaw country king and the God of Fuck make a damn good team.

Shooter’s influence feels most evident on “PAINT YOU WITH MY LOVE.” The song is adorned with steel guitars and an absinthe-serving saloon piano, standing as one of several slow-to-mid-tempo songs on the album. But lest you think Manson’s gone soft with an abundance of ballads and reached his Neil Diamond period, the opening lyrics put that fear to rest, crooning: “All the blondes drop their panties and cry / To their father’s first lullaby.” Thankfully, Mr. Manson is still the same demented demigod we know and love with a penchant for provocative turns of phrase.

Like many of the songs on WE ARE CHAOS, “PAINT YOU WITH MY LOVE” contains several micro-movements and tempo shifts. The entire album has a sense of danger along with its theatrics, a foreboding anticipation of things to come. The intricate arrangements and instrumentation add to the atmosphere. It feels like Manson has really hit a creative stride here, proving he’s got plenty more gas in the tank, retaining his core essence while evolving with the times to create something fresh that’s still capable of kicking you hard in the taint.

Mirrors, Garbage & Monkey Paws: Themes in WE ARE CHAOS

Reminiscent of “In the Beginning,” the spoken word track that kicked off Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil album, Manson’s eerie intro to “RED BLACK AND BLUE” set the tone, as well as introduces some of the thematic elements of WE ARE CHAOS: “My eyes are mirrors / All I can see are gods on the left / And demons on the right.” The lyrics evoke the ancient custom of placing coins on the eyes of the dead as payment to get into the afterlife.

Once again, channeling the spirit of The Thin White Duke, Manson weaves in esoteric references to ancient concepts from the Kabbalah: “Set fire to the tree of life / Not for death /Just to watch the suffering” and ponders “Am I garbage or God?” Disposable teens, gods, and shiny objects have long played a role in Manson’s songs, as has the concept of man ascending to godhood. However, godhood comes with its own set of regrets.

It’s a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” a monkey’s paw that gives you what you want, but at a high cost. This is also a recurring theme on WE ARE CHAOS. On (my favorite track on the album) “HALF-WAY & ONE STEP FORWARD,” Manson refrains, “I don’t wanna know / Don’t need to know / You got champagne problems.” Then on “PERFUME”, he warns, “If you conjure the devil / You better make sure / You got a bed for him to sleep in.” In essence: You got what you asked for. You wet your bed, now lie in it.

WE ARE CHAOS is chock full of good advice with Manson offering words of wisdom from the vantage point of someone who’s seen and done nearly every act of debauchery and managed to retain a strong sense of self. The Gary Numan-esque “DON’T CHASE THE DEAD” warns against courting the deceased, “or they’ll end up chasing you.” It’s one part glam-infused ballad and one part stern warning about dancing a little too close with your past.

On “KEEP MY HEAD TOGETHER,” Manson poses a series of questions before advising, “Don’t try changing someone else / You’ll just end up changing yourself.” While it’s long been speculated that several of Manson’s romantic relationships dissolved due to a partner disapproving of his lifestyle, this lyric turns the sentiment around: If you focus your energy on trying to change another person, you lose sight of your own identity the process.

In terms of identity, Manson states his case on “SOLVE COAGULA,” the song immediately following “KEEP MY HEAD TOGETHER.” He ruminates, “I’m not special / I’m just broken / And I don’t wanna be fixed.” While the lyrics initially sound fatalistic, Manson actually serves up self-acceptance at its finest, especially when taken in conjunction with a line from “HALF-WAY AND ONE STEP FORWARD”: “Ring all the bells you can ring / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the sunlight gets in.” It’s a riff on a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” but Manson’s message is that the broken parts of our psyche and how we deal with them are what allows each of us to shine brilliantly. He shrugs off the notion of wanting to be “fixed” because he’s perfectly fine with what he feels are the right proportions of darkness and light.

The album’s closer, “BROKEN NEEDLE” bears a striking kinship to “Coma White,” the last track on Mechanical Animals. Not only do they share a sonic resemblance, but Manson trades the futuristic heroin(e) of “Coma White” for traditional fairy tale princesses in the Brothers Very Grimm narrative space of “BROKEN NEEDLE.” By the time the ride is over, Manson asks listeners, “are you alright?” before answering them: “’cause I’m not okay.” Amidst the concern for potentially hurting a loved one, the statement is less of a cry for help and more self-awareness.

Throughout WE ARE CHAOS,  Manson makes allusions to an empire on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the midst of societal decay and a nation in turmoil, each person is facing their own personal dark night of the soul and coming to grips with who they are, faced with the mirrored eyes of their own mortality staring back at them.

In an earlier interview when the title track first dropped in July 2020, Manson said,

In the soul or your museum of memories, the worst are always the mirrors. Shards and slivers of ghosts haunted my hands when I wrote most of these lyrics.

On WE ARE CHAOS, Manson surpasses the groundwork he laid on The Pale Emperor and Heaven Upside Down, turning out one of his best albums to-date. It feels raw and personal, like he’s ripped off the scab and is allowing fans to stick their fingers in it to take home some souvenirs. At the same time, he leaves the door open for listeners to find something that speaks directly to them, too, encouraging them to get raw with their own wounds.

What I took from the album was that these songs are each interwoven stories — separate, but part of a whole. At the center of it all is the lonely figure. Maybe it’s Death himself — or at least an observer of mayhem rather than an agent of chaos. It’s not God, or America, or a singular entity that is Chaos. It’s the collective “WE.” And “WE,” regardless of celebrity status or as part of the unwashed masses, all wind up dead.

But it’s not the ticking of the clock and counting down the minutes to your dirt nap. Rather, it’s the time you’ve got on the clock. It’s telling your own story and being content to do so, without social media peanut galleries either looking on in approval or influencing how you view yourself. It’s about a god becoming human and embracing that humanity, even if it’s a little warped at times.

Thank you again, Mr. Manson (or Mr. Warner, if yo’ nasty). You always know just what to say or sing at precisely the right times.

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