Once the sultan of shock, the Marilyn Manson that greets us in 2015 cuts a different figure. Late last year, the 45-year-old Brian Warner was forced to clarify that a leaked video by filmmaker Eli Roth – which apparently depicted Lana Del Rey as a victim of sexual assault – was not a creation of his making. This felt somewhat uncharacteristic: in the past Manson has revelled in the role of bogeyman, sucking in society’s ills like a thirsty black hole. Of course, there’s a dark morality at the heart of Manson’s music: it’s all a way of pointing out the hypocrisy of our self-appointed guardians. But to be forced to admit that out loud? It’s to endanger everything that makes Manson, well, Manson.
‘The Pale Emperor’ runs the same risk. Manson’s ninth album shows little sign of contrivance or concept. Made with the screen composer Tyler Bates, who Manson met on the set of US comedy drama Californication (where Manson played himself), it finds its maker in soul-baring mood. There are bursts of belligerent stadium glam that hark back to 1996’s Antichrist Superstar, but more common is a bleak, bluesy rock that splits the difference between Bauhaus, The Bad Seeds and True Detective. Opener ‘Killing Strangers’, a sleazy chain-gang stomp, would sound at home leaking from the speakers of some greasy dive bar as dull-eyed strippers twirl listlessly on poles.
At its worst, ‘The Pale Emperor’ feels grey and humourless. ‘The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles’ is wheezy hair metal, while the dour ‘Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge’ channels ‘Lust For Life’-era Iggy, but makes hedonism sound like hard labour. Actually, it’s the glimpses of blues that prove perversely exciting: the Stones shimmy of ‘The Devil Beneath My Feet’; or ‘Birds Of Hell Awaiting’, which mixes squalling slide guitar with a riff like ‘The Beautiful People’ on hillbilly heroin. It’s no classic, but perhaps the surprise here is that Manson’s music can work without the shock shtick. Being a wicked voice in the wilderness, it turns out, quite suits him.