When I was a kid, there was no bogeyman more terrifying to my parents than Marilyn Manson. I was raised Catholic, and even homeschooled for six years, and in my parents’ eyes, Manson and his music were the true embodiment of evil. Every facet of his image was darkness, and even though I was told time and again he would lead me into hell, I found myself gravitating towards that darkness, if only out of an angsty wish to piss off my Christian elders.
One of Manson’s main talents lies in creating a spectacle, and he certainly hooked a lot of people with it in the late 90’s/early aughts. The last twenty or so years have softened that spectacle, as Manson has matured as both a public figure and a musician. Yet even now he still manages to produce music that is both moving and mutating, as evidenced on the brand-new full length We Are Chaos.
Though We Are Chaos has plenty of the misanthropic energy Manson is so good at embodying, its sound is remarkably accessible. Many of the tracks take on a country edge, probably stemming from the influence of Manson’s primary co-writer, Shooter Jennings. Tracks like “Paint You with My Love” and “Don’t Chase the Dead” incorporate folk textures and bluegrass timbres, and there is plenty of lap steel to drench these tunes in twangy, dolorous melody. Both the title track and the closing “Broken Needle” rely heavily on acoustic guitar, and many of the vocal melodies would hardly sound any sweeter coming from pop icons such as Sam Smith or Harry Styles.
Yet for all its semi-Southern charm, the country/pop sensibility on this record doesn’t obscure any of Manson’s razor-sharp goth-rock edge. “Don’t Chase the Dead” and “Perfume” use stomping drums and spacy guitars that feel like 80’s new-wave shoved through a woodchipper. “Infinite Darkness” and the opening track “Red Black and Blue” lean into metal territory with walls of distortion, spooky intervals and plenty of profanity.
The juxtaposition of the catchy and the challenging, the major melodies and minor progressions, creates a very palpable push-and-pull of emotion across We Are Chaos. This dichotomy is built into the bones of the record too—the first side is remarkably brighter in instrumentation and tone than the second half. Yet each side features one black sheep track that threads it back to the opposite side: the heavy-hitting “Red Black and Blue” leads into the lighter A-side, while the gritty B-side closes with the catchy and emotional “Broken Needle.” Manson uses the first and final tracks to tie the record closed, allowing the light in the catchier songs to make that darkness truly stand out.
As with the instrumentation, Manson’s lyrical approach to We Are Chaos is viciously introspective, and his writing addresses some metaphysical questions about purpose and value. Songs like “Halfway and One Step Forward” question the long-term value of celebrity: “It’s about how much people cry / when you die / It’s not about the storm of tears / That you make when you’re alive.” The title track breaks down the dual nature of the performer, asking “Am I a man or a show” before zooming out even farther to view his entire existence as “a moment.” “Infinite Darkness” casts a bleak shadow over a fleeting existence with the lyric “You’re not the hero / You’re dead longer than you’re alive.”
Another major lyrical theme of the record is the idea of being damaged or worthless: the opening track asks the question “Am I garbage or God?” while “We are Chaos” remarks that “We all end up in a garbage dump.” Similarly, “Infinite Darkness” asserts that “Just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you’re worth anything.” This questioning of value leads to some stark but important realizations: Manson’s self-critical declaration that “We are sick….we can’t be cured” is embraced by the end of the record with the line “I’m not special, I’m just broken / and I don’t wanna be fixed.”
With We Are Chaos, Manson yanks out the viscera of his past and reads it like tea leaves to see what the future holds. Any fan of Manson’s previous work will hear pieces of his whole discography within this new record, yet it’s clear he isn’t content to rest on his gothic laurels. His emotional lyricism and crafted approach to songwriting make this album simultaneously unapologetic and accessible, and its clear country edge shows him stepping well out of his comfort zone. And I honestly can’t think of a decent concluding sentence, so in conclusion, I conclude.
My Top Track: “Infinite Darkness”
We Are Chaos is out via Loma Vista Recordings. You can stream the record on Spotify, or purchase physicals or a digital copy via Bandcamp. For all things Marilyn Manson, follow him on Facebook or Instagram @marilynmanson.