Content Warning: This review critiques the violent subject matter in Marilyn Manson’s music, including descriptions of domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Following a disappointing run that had lasted nearly a decade, Marilyn Manson made a fairly compelling (if not completely convincing) comeback with 2015’s The Pale Emperor. This not-quite-return-to-form also seemed to coincided with a stabilisation and cleaning up of the troubled shock rocker’s personal life, and it caused a stir among those who had all but written off the former “antichrist superstar,” leaving many wondering whether that album would prove to be a one-off glimpse of his former greatness or if he was capable of pulling-off a similar feat in the future. Although hopes remained high, alarm bells began to ring when it was announced that the follow-up to that record would be titled “Say10” and was slated for release on Valentine’s Day. Thankfully, that potentially embarrassing set of circumstances never came to fruition. The release was pulled with little fanfare or explanation—eventually emerging eight months later under the considerably less sophomoric title Heaven Upside Down, on the nondescript date of October 6 (although the first single being released on September 11 seems hardly coincidental). It eventually emerged that Manson was unhappy with the release in it’s earlier form and three extra tracks—it’s beginning, central and ending numbers—were added in the interim before its eventual release. The one-time “god of fuck” appears to have made the right call because, while Heaven Upside Down remains a far cry from the output of his glory period, it also provides further evidence that there’s still more than a little bit of Satanic gas left in his proverbial tank. Unfortunately, it also proves to be a release underpinned by a number of regrettable circumstances and uncomfortable revelations.
Yet, despite its “feel good” presentation, Heaven Upside Down is underpinned by more than its fair share of disturbing undercurrents. On a more unfortunate and sympathetic note, the largely electronic dance number “Saturnalia” is dedicated to Manson’s father, who passed away during the recording of the album, an event which also unfortunately follows Manson’s mother’s own death during the recording of The Pale Emperor and which further informs the concept of the record as a whole. Also prevalent—and on a more concerning note—are the frequent references to cocaine that frequent the likes of “Say 10,” “JE$U$ CRI$I$” and the sultry goth anthem “Blood Honey.” Manson’s struggles with substance abuse have been well documented and seem to have become particularly troubling (and performance inhibiting) during his recent creative slump. That the singer’s battles with the drug should come so heavily to the fore during his creative renaissance—such is surely one of the many meanings behind the title of The Pale Emperor—only makes the situation more troubling. However, Manson grappling with his own personal demons is still not the most concerning thing about Heaven Upside Down; for in among all its compellingly malevolent sexuality sits a persistent and unsettling undercurrent of actual violent and often sexual abuse.
Manson and his music have always been informed by the intersection of violence and sexuality; hell, It’s the whole point of his name and persona, and he has largely managed to explore such themes in a far more intelligent and successful manner than most. However, there are more than a few moments on Heaven Upside Down where this representation slips into unsettling and perhaps unacceptable territories. Manson’s bitterly self-aware delivery of “I write songs to fight and to fuck to” provides one of the most compelling moments of the record, and the track serves as an apt representation of what are clearly the singer’s current frustrations with his own public perception and position in the music business. The follow-up line “make up your mind or I’ll make it up for you”—although perhaps intended as a piece of harmless heavy metal sloganeering—unfortunately casts Manson in the position of a threatening abuser, and the rest of the track, while seemingly introspective, does little to explore this position in any meaningful or redeemable fashion. The same goes for the refrain on “Kill4Me” of “I love you enough to ask you again,” which proves uncomfortable even amid a song that is otherwise preoccupied with committing a murder. And the final track—simply titled “Threats of Romance”—although largely metaphorical, contains a similarly abusive narrative. Manson’s music is not meant to be comfortable or easily digestible and, given the often abstract and metaphorical nature of his lyrics, such fare may have flown under the radar in a different or isolated context. However, each of these examples, and the general unease underlying Heaven Upside Down are all part of an abusive ideology that’s been steadily building up around the artist in recent times.
Just yesterday, Manson released a video for “Say10” featuring alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp lording over and awkwardly groping a group of naked, grovelling women (whose racial depiction is also about as nuanced as a Dove soap commercial, to say the absolute, very least), and the singer has previously defended Depp as being “completely crucified—unjustly” in regard to the allegations. Manson is a long-time friend of Depp as well as being the godfather of his daughter Lily-Rose, so his support and presumption of innocence is perhaps understandable or at least expected. However, this is not the first concerning incident of its kind that Manson has been involved in in recent times. In 2014, the singer was the subject of much backfire around the release of a video in which Hostel director Eli Roth appeared to (simulatedly) rape singer (and Manson’s then-rumoured girlfriend) Lana Del Rey inter-cut with clips of the Manson and his music. The singer was quick to distance himself from the incident, declaring it “a grand mistake on the person who put it with [his] videos” and that he would “never make anything like that.” Yet, over the past decade, he has repeatedly done just that. The video finds an official precursor in the form of the track “Heart-Shaped Glasses” from Eat Me, Drink Me, with its rather unambiguous parenthetical “When the Heart Guides the Hand” and refrain of “don’t break my heart and I won’t break your heart-shaped glasses.” That the song was based on a novel about a manipulative paedophile perhaps abstracts things and makes it a less-personal statement, but it doesn’t exactly help matters either, especially since the song was reportedly inspired by Manson’s real life reaction to his then-partner’s resemblance to the character’s victim. “Pistol Whipped” (2012) and the potentially very real circumstances behind “Devour” (2009) provide further and far more egregious examples.
Manson’s music has always been confronting, and he has participated in multiple charity events to benefit victims of domestic and sexual abuse within the same time frame (see: here and here). However, ever since his music began to move decisively away from politics and general social commentary and toward more introspective directions, there also seems to have been a noticeable increase in (or even just an advent of) these threatening, abusive narratives, which seem to have reached their tipping point on Heaven Upside Down. I’m aware that Smells Like Children (1995) and “Abuse” Parts 1 and 2 are things. Yet, even if Manson’s threats are directed inward and intended metaphorically, his music no longer serves to uncover and provoke such uncomfortable societal underpinnings—rather, he is more and more frequently positioned as their perpetrator, with the listener serving as either his victim or accomplice. These sorts of narratives, however inward-facing they may be, really aren’t acceptable and, even if they want to hide behind the protective shelter of “shock rock,” they’re not that useful or effective either. Manson has the better part of a quarter-century career behind him proving that he can do better than this, so to see him increasingly resting on an unfortunate and unfortunately obvious crutch in order to provoke a response is—at the very least—disappointing, even before anyone wants to debate the merit of such content. Which is a shame, because otherwise, Heaven Upside Down is another strong entry in this seemingly redemptive phase of Marilyn Manson’s career.
Heaven Upside Down is out now via Loma Vista Recordings.