Underrated: Marilyn Manson’s “Mechanical Animals”

marilynmansonI’ve decided that I don’t care about your opinions on Marilyn Manson.  I don’t want to hear them, so keep them to yourselves.  But here’s mine.

Let’s just throw it out there: Marilyn Manson’s 1998 album Mechanical Animals is vastly underrated.  There.  I said it.  And I meant it.  Though it was a commercial success, the record seems to take a lot of slag because of Manson’s waning popularity, his propensity for douchebaggery, and his later and ongoing lackluster output.  It suffers because its creator has become the butt of so many jokes.  Forgotten because, you know, the 90’s.  So, let’s revisit it.  Let’s put make-up on, don a suit of prosthetic, nipple-less breasts, curse and sneer, and give Mechanical Animals another chance.  It deserves it.  And so do we.

For a brief period of time when I was in high school, Marilyn Manson was exactly the kind of music that I needed in my life.  It was angry and aggressive and incorporated elements of electronic music, heavy metal, and industrial mayhem.  Music to my ears.  Manson also came from under the wing of Nine Inch Nails mastermind and foul mood purveyor Trent Reznor, another check plus in my book.  Lastly, the overt anti-religious themes and messages presented as a theater of Christian-mockery really paired well with where my head was at the time.  Growing up in west Texas, I may have well been residing in the Bible belt, a vast and windy desert just teeming with self-righteous finger-waggers and naysayers.  Sure, it could always have been worse, but my personal stance on God, religion, the afterlife, and the ether has never been one that’s eye to eye with the veritable sea of Baptists and Catholics I grew up around.  I also learned very quickly what a farce religion could be, its practitioners the very definition of hypocrisy.  So yeah, Manson’s hyper-idealized middle finger in the face of religious zealousness (an image however meticulously cultivated) rang true to me.  It was an image I could get behind.  I was sixteen.

Marilyn Manson’s pop music reign of terror began on more of an ugly and icky, but comical note.  First album Portrait of an American Family is filled with cultural satire, horror movie antics, and the anti-religion, anti-God language and imagery that would become par for the Manson course on later records.  The record also had a goofy and cartoonish vibe to it, in a lot of ways putting it in the same camp as albums by White Zombie, but without the groove.  The Smells Like Children EP came next, a collection of remixes and covers that started to up the creep factor the band was going for.  After that, Antichrist Superstar cemented the band’s popularity, an album fully encompassing the anti-Christian figure Manson had dutifully crafted through the previous couple of years.  And then the circus ensued.

That man knew how to play the controversy game.  Kind of like KISS before them, all of the shouts from angry parents, the protests outside of stadiums, music venues, and record shops, the condemning sermons being preached by Bible-thumping celebrity televangelists, and the near constant media hysteria involving the band’s Satanic effect on the children, only served to increase the band’s album sales and concert attendance.  And Manson used every bit of this to his benefit.  There’s nothing quite like parlaying fear and ignorance into money making, in the music business or otherwise.  And so, the group sold a bajillion records, made a ton of money, and became rock stars.  A follow up would surely be in the works.  And in 1998, Mechanical Animals came out…and it was different than expected.

I will give Manson this.  He could have just coasted on a new album of curse words, demon imagery, and heretical God-bashing, a sub-genre of pop music that he essentially created and defined (and now a laughable and dried up well he insists on going back to again and again), but instead released a David Bowie-inspired, electro-metal, break-up record.  Gone is the evil clown, the leader of the circus of the grotesque from Portrait of an American Family and Smells Like Children.  Gone is the monstrous, anti-everything reverend posturing of Antichrist Superstar.  In its place is the androgynous alien being withering away from drug use and flashing lights.  In its place are instantly grabbing hooks and personal-feeling lyrics.  In its place is a fragile and broken shell of a heart.  Who would have thought that this guy could feel?  Could care?  Could love?

No one saw this coming.

marilynmanson2Though he had nothing to do with it, David Bowie is all over this record.  From the electro-rock of “Great Big White World” to the R&B funk of “Dope Show” and “I Don’t Like the Drugs, but the Drugs Like Me,” the astronaut-in-peril imagery of “Disassociative” to the sterile apocalypse of “Last Day on Earth,” Bowie’s influence reigns supreme.  Manson’s love of albums like Diamond Dogs and Station to Station is apparent on every track, in every riff, in every note.  That’s probably why I like it so much.  Putting the band and the man in this different musical context revitalized my interest in them at the time, as the old Antichrist Manson funhouse played itself out, turning into a shock for shock’s sake kind of revue.  Despite the prosthetic boob suit, the shock rock tactics are dialed down, a heavier focus on lyrical themes, mood, and all around atmosphere.  A man with a broken heart and a head full of regret turns to drugs and death to alleviate the burn.  It’s an old story.  An old theme.  But it worked because it felt honest and real.  The album’s a downer, but a much more personal downer.  Naturally, Manson would never make anything like it again, content to recycle the old material and wallow in past glories, a walking punchline, a clown.

This was the end.

And there were hits, and the album sold well, but in the end (and sixteen years on) Mechanical Animals was a swan song.  A great swan song.  Go listen to it.


Certainly this album is available on Amazon for cheap.  Look it up.  I can’t do everything for you.


Thomas H Williams

Thomas H Williams

From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.

One Response to Underrated: Marilyn Manson’s “Mechanical Animals”
  1. Shawn C. Baker Reply

    I Love this album. I remember hearing at the time of Antichrist – and I was not a fan at that time – that Manson was going to stand up soon and tell all of his dedicated little followers who had clearly missed his point that all his act was just that. I always wondered why that never happened, and now while reading this piece I realize that it did, and the method of the message was delivered in is called Mechanical Animals.

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