I remember seeing one of those clickbait articles online at some point last year discussing rock albums with only one good song, and Mechanical Animals was on that list. The writer’s contention was that “The Dope Show” was the only good song on this record. I remember at the time thinking the guy didn’t know what he was talking about, and after revisiting this record, I’m sure of it. If anything, “Dope Show” is one of the weakest songs.
You can say a lot of things about Marilyn Manson and the direction that his career has taken. Strings of mediocre albums have made him a caricature of himself, but those first three records cannot be denied. Each of those showed a developing and evolving persona for Manson. His debut, Portrait of an American Family, was solely about shock. With Antichrist Superstar, he honed the edge on that shock with rage and vitriol — producing, arguably, the last rock ‘n’ roll record to truly scare the shit out of parents. And that’s what made the transformation on Mechanical Animals so bizarre and wonderful.
After the anger and heaviness of Antichrist Superstar, it was a bit jarring to hear the first warbly notes of Animals album opener “Great Big White World” come out of the speakers. While the shock factor is still very present on Mechanical Animals, it takes a back seat to a more glitzy, glam rock sound heavily influenced by David Bowie. He even goes so far as to directly reference Bowie’s “Fame” on “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me).”
Surprisingly, given Marilyn Manson’s previous history, where this album succeeds is in subtlety. It’s still a very angry and disillusioned record, but it’s not screaming in your face and bashing you over the head. In fact, two of the strongest performances here are also two of the quietest — “Disassociative” and “The Speed of Pain.”
I’ve always considered the two almost companion pieces. “Disassociative” is a dark, whacked-out cyberpunk piece that has a definite thematic nod to “Space Oddity.” Though the astronaut in Manson’s tune is floating in a drug-addled space inside his own mind rather than the tin can above the Earth of Bowie’s Major Tom.
My personal favorite, “The Speed of Pain” follows with a strumming acoustic guitar and a drawn-out, moaning vocal line from Manson. That leads to another spacey, robotic vocal effect on the chorus, with some nice soulful female backing vocals that elevate the song. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the bridge of this tune, in which Manson sings “Just remember, when you think you’re free, the crack inside your fucking heart is me.” As a word guy, I’ve always thought it should be broken heart, but as a music fan, I have to admit the way that Marilyn Manson delivers the line is pretty fucking cool.
And that’s another thing about this album. I absolutely love most of the lyrical content. I think it’s probably Manson’s high point as a lyricist, filled with some clever turns of phrase, like his coined term “phenobarbiedoll” in the title track. There are also more reflective and thought-provoking moments throughout the record than we’d really heard from Manson before.
The album also holds together well as its designed concept piece, a story in which two rock stars present unique views of the world. Glam rocker and addict Alpha tackles most of the deeper and reflective pieces, while alien fallen to Earth (another Bowie reference, anyone?) Omega delivers the more shallow numbers like “The Dope Show.” Musical themes and melodies thread their way throughout the record, returning here and there to remind you of earlier moments.
Mechanical Animals has several lighter-hearted hard rockers, like “Rock is Dead” and “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me),” but certainly nothing that approaches the heaviness or rage of songs like “1996” or “Irresponsible Hate Anthem” from its predecessor. Still, it knows where its power is, and that’s in the strange combination of bleak and glam on tracks like “Coma White,” which closes this record perfectly.
Manson has stated that the album was a bit of satire aimed at himself and what he’d become after the hoopla over Antichrist Superstar. Be that as it may, Mechanical Animals may also stand as his finest moment.
He’s always has been a polarizing figure among fans of heavier music, and understandably so. There are those who consider Marilyn Manson a genius, and just as many who consider him a joke. But even the most rabid of Manson haters, if they approached it with an honest and open ear, I think would have to give him grudging respect for Mechanical Animals.