20 years ago, Marilyn Manson terrified America as the Antichrist Superstar. He embodied everything the masses feared: someone who pushed the envelope, played devil’s advocate, and loudly criticized the hypocrisy of religion and American society. But these days, he’s rarely shocking. His albums became formulaic, rehashing the same things he said 10 years ago. His antics grew tiring, looking like lame attempts to keep his shocking reputation than to be provocative. With his questionable behavior and subpar live performances, it seemed like his best days were behind him. But on his 11th album, WE ARE CHAOS, he lets go of the past, embraces change, and returns with fire and brutal honesty that’s been missing for years.
Manson forgoes his well-worn aggressive, me against the world formula for a subtle, stripped-back approach. Similar to 2015’s The Pale Emperor, he explores a more country and piano-based sound with hints of blues and Southern rock. The David Bowie-inspired “Don’t Chase the Dead” is a glam rock romper that should’ve been the lead single and the haunting “Half- Way & One Step Forward” stands out for its ominous, doom-laden piano refrain and Manson’s best vocals in years.
“Paint You With my Love,” completely catches you off guard with Manson’s crooning and the Elton John-esque piano melody. It’s an oddly tender moment that’s almost sweet until it takes a dramatic sonic shift turning the soft ballad into a hellish hymn. Written before the pandemic, “We Are Chaos” is an eerie reflection of our current struggles, especially with lines like “If you say that we’re ill/just give us your pill/hope we’ll just go away.” Despite its poignant lyrics, it’s the album’s weakest moment. Though it grows on you a bit, something about it feels off with its corny music and bland delivery. Luckily, it’s the only low point on the record.
Manson may have stripped things down for this album, but that doesn’t mean its lacking in intensity and brutality. In some ways, this is the harshest he’s sounded in years. The record’s heaviest moment “Red, Black and Blue” is a mean sounding track with gritty guitars, intense energy, and Manson at his most ominous. He’s downright sinister as he states, “See I was a snake, but I didn’t realize/that you could walk on water/without legs.” The way his gravelly vocals rumble makes him seem more threatening than did years ago. Manson is ready to attack on the vicious “Infinite Darkness.” With its gut-punching energy and dark atmosphere, it’s a blistering track that reminds you of the man that you feared 20 years ago. And “Perfume” has the same boot-stomping swagger found on Mechanical Animals and The Golden Age of Grotesque. Though there are hints of what he’s done before, it never sounds like he’s trying to recapture those glory days. Rather, he reinvents his sound in a way that makes it refreshing and exciting again.
Unlike previous records, Manson isn’t concerned with living up to his shock rocker reputation. There are no groan-inducing lyrics that try too hard to be disturbing. Instead, he gets brutally honest with himself. On the melancholy “Solve Colagula” he proclaims “I’m not special/I’m just broken/and I don’t want to be fixed” and the upbeat “Keep My Head Together” he laments trying to change someone only to end up changing yourself as if accepting maybe he doesn’t want to change. “Broken Needle” is the album’s most confessional moment. Backed by a soft acoustic guitar, Manson admits he’s “not okay” and sounds like he’s baring his souls as he sings “I am the needle/dig in your grooves/scratch you up/then I’ll put you away.” This isn’t Manson trying to be blasphemous or screaming at the world. This is Manson raw and exposed. He lays his feelings out bare, reminding us that underneath the shtick and the makeup, he’s human after all.
WE ARE CHAOS does what Manson has failed to do in the past ten years: shock you. This is Manson’s finest work in years. Rather than relive the past, he embraces the future with a new sound that’s more focused and varied. The strip back approach shows us a more vulnerable side of Manson, yet it still has a viciousness that was missing on previous releases. No longer concerned with being a spectacle, the album has some of his best songwriting and singing in a long time. It feels like he’s accepted he’s no longer the raging Antichrist Superstar, yet that doesn’t mean he can’t make music that’s impactful. The album proves why you shouldn’t write off Marilyn Manson. Every now and then he still knows how to surprise you.