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Pop Music Review

Marilyn's Moon on the Wane

Manson, once insightful as well as shocking, falls back on a tired sound and some cheap theatrics.

January 15, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Sen. Joseph Lieberman didn't do anyone any good five years ago when he declared that Marilyn Manson was the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company.

The remark not only reminded us that politicians aren't to be trusted as cultural commentators, but it also set a standard against which Manson seems doomed to forever be measured.

On stage Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, the flamboyant rocker seemed like a man in need of a career counselor.

Manson can go on teasing his fan base with his Grand Guignol circus show, but it's hard to imagine in the age of Eminem and other hard-core rappers that he is still even in the Top 10 on parents' most-feared list.

That makes him seem severely dated--and he doesn't do much to correct the impression.

For someone with the ambition and possibly the talent to be the new David Bowie, Manson appears resolved to settling for the new Alice Cooper.

Bowie and Cooper both employed grand theatrics in their early days, but Bowie backed his with songs frequently overflowing with challenging and inspired ideas. In such roles as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, he became a genuine radical--someone questioning sexual and social attitudes of the day.

Everything about Cooper was more conventional. The songs were straightforward expressions of youthful yearnings, sometimes catchy as in "School's Out," but rarely sociologically daring or compelling. And Cooper's ghoulish staging was mostly straight out of horror movies or comics.

Manson seemed to recognize the need to upgrade his art in 1998 when he delivered "Mechanical Animals," an icy album that explored the emptiness of someone who had lost his purpose and soul.

But the collection, with its melodic, Bowie-ish touches, wasn't embraced by all the early Manson faithful, which missed the harsher goth/industrial sonic design and the broader, more overtly rebellious themes.

So Manson retreated in the new "Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)" album to the earlier sound and to lyrics that lack the personal, probing feel of "Mechanical Animals." The songs on "Holy Wood" have major themes, including violence and religion in society, but minor imagination. They are mostly convoluted expressions of discontent and alarm, and the album, released in November, has already fallen out of the Top 100 sellers.

On stage Saturday, Manson and his four-piece band played a good chunk of the album, but they didn't freshen his set. The main feeling of the evening was a reunion show--a chance for true believers to get together again and relive memories of the days when Manson really was causing chaos in the rock world.

Things are so tame now that you wondered whether the guy holding a "sinners repent" sign outside the Universal wasn't really part of the band's traveling troupe.

Manson did employ some staging. He walked around menacingly on stilts during one number and knelt at an altar while wearing papal attire during another. And he spent much of the final half hour mooning the audience--which appears to be his signature move.

Mostly, however, he and the band concentrated on the music.

For all his attempts at anthems, most of the songs, including the new "Disposable Teens," tend to be as conventional as "School's Out" rather than in the more penetrating mode of Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" or "Heroes."

It's not a good sign for Manson, the writer, that the song that generated the most audience sing-along was the band's rendition of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

There was another lesson to be learned when Beatles and Rolling Stones records were played over the sound system before the opening band (the industrial-prone Godhead) and before Manson's own set. Some of those songs from the '60s had more of a radical, unsettling edge than anything we would hear from either of the night's bands. Imagine what Lieberman would say if Eminem had written the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"?

The reason the Beatles' and the Stones' songs seemed more striking and unsettling was that their emotions were more convincing than the abstract creations of someone, like Manson, trying to manufacture a persona.

Manson is a smart, articulate, likable guy. He's too talented to be wasting his time chasing the ghost of Alice Cooper.

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