Over the course of the past ten years or so, we have arrived at a place where there are really two Marilyn Mansons. For the sake of clarity, we shall refer them by different names. Marilyn Manson makes industrialized shock-rock; meanwhile, Karen O. Manson makes stripped-down garage rock. Both Mansons have had their creative ups and downs, but, generally speaking, Marilyn has been more successful than Karen O.
Heaven Upside Down, the former Trent Reznor protégé’s tenth studio album, is an attempt to meld Marilyn and Karen O. into one coherent, unified Manson. It works… sometimes, kind of. But it also serves to highlight why Marilyn’s work has, on the whole, been so much more satisfying than that of Karen O.
Manson, like so many solo vocalists, is a visionary (by which I mean he has a vision, not necessarily a good vision) and a curator, and as such, is highly dependent on his collaborators. Like 2015’s The Pale Emperor — one of Karen O.’s better offerings — Heaven Upside Down finds Manson working with producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tyler Bates. Bates is a perfect fit for modern-day Manson; his day job is composing film scores for little indie movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and 300, which is to say, he has a strong grasp on how to construct well-structured pieces of music which impact the listener emotionally. The actual genre of those pieces of music is almost irrelevant. Bates amalgamates Marilyn and Karen O. pretty seamlessly, and musically, at least, Heaven Upside Down is a strong pop-metal release (mostly — the eight-minute-long “Saturnalia” desperately needs to be half as long).
Unfortunately, Manson is his own worst enemy. Time and again, he makes poor creative choices that damage Bates’ material, whether it’s rapping over “Tattooed in Reverse,” approaching “Blood Honey” as a sincere power ballad (“I’m not being mean, I’m just being meeeeeee!”), strongly suggesting that he’s unaware of the number eleven by repeating the phrase “One two three four five six seven eight nine ten/ Revelations come in twelves, I’ll say it again” on “Revelation 12,” or penning these laugh-out-loud-lyrics as the chorus for “Jesus Crisis”:
I write songs and I fight and I fuck, too
If you wanna fight, then I’ll fight you
If you wanna fuck, I will fuck you
Make up your mind or I’ll make it up for you
If you think that looks bad written down, wait ’til you hear his delivery. Not. Good.
And hey, look, there are songs, like “We Know Where You Fucking Live,” “Kill4Me,” and the title track, where Manson makes it work. But it’s hard not to notice that he is by far at his best on the album’s former title track, “Say10,” a Karen O.-free, purely industrial scream-along anthem that could easily have been on Holy Wood. As many musicians have been in Manson’s band, that’s how many miles ahead of the rest of the album “Say10” is.
The contrast between “Say10” and the rest of the album illustrates why Marilyn is so superior to Karen O. Everything about Manson, from his vocal style to his public persona to his proclivity for pun-based lyrics, suits the ever-theatrical genre of industrial, but they’d be wildly out of place on a Harlem Shakes album. Within the heightened, action-movie-trailer reality of “Say10,” Manson’s repeated references to “Cocaine and Abel” seem silly, but appropriately so. Put another way: Marilyn Manson is Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Karen O. Manson is Arnold Schwarzenegger doing Hamlet. It just… doesn’t… fit.
I’m not sure why Manson continues to pursue the Karen O. thing, and I won’t speculate here. Suffice it to say, if he ever decides he wants to go back to being Marilyn full-time and he keeps working with talented guys like Tyler Bates, he may very well make a good record again. As it stands, we’ve got about half of one.