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October 17, 2004

A shocking thing about Manson CD: It doesn't suck

That Marilyn Manson sure knows how to get your ears bleeding. While I can within good conscience recommend his latest disc, Lest We Forget: The Best of, only the most supremely masochistic would attempt to get through it in one sitting. Which is fitting, because this surely constitutes a wide portion of Manson's fan base: purple-mascara'd Goths for whom lyrics like "I'm a black rainbow" are a salve to their tortured, misunderstood teenage souls.

But maybe I'm not being fair. It would be easy to write a pithy, sarcastic review deriding Manson for his over-the-top showmanship—but sometime in the midst of all that devilish preening and posturing, he found the time to make some pretty good music. I'm speaking specifically of songs like "Rock is Dead" and "The Fight Song," each of which contain lyrics a lot more insightful than "I'm a black rainbow," thank God (or, in this case, thank Satan).

Like many a "Best of" compilation from a not-quite-major artist, the greatest songs on Lest We Forget are the singles, which I'll run through perfunctorily in case you haven't heard of them: "Sweet Dreams," "The Dope Show," "The Beautiful People," and "Tainted Love." It's no coincidence that two out of these four titles are remakes; Lest We Forget even includes another remake, of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," because one of Manson's stocks in trade is taking a vaguely sinister-sounding song and straining it through his gutted vocal chords until it sounds downright demonic. (Hey, it worked for that sweet little ditty from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) So how does Manson's "Personal Jesus" stack up? Well, it doesn't cause Depeche Mode any reason for embarrassment, although it's not as good as the version Johnny Cash did on his final CD. (Although if you were expecting a real contest between Marilyn Manson and the Man in Black…well, I'd tell you to go to hell, but they probably have Marilyn Manson Muzak playing down there.)

The most shocking thing about Marilyn Manson—prosthetic boobs, casual blasphemy, and self-mutilation aside—is his penchant for muddled lyrics, which occasionally border on the inane. Take this line from "Disposable Teens," or, rather, don't: "I'm a teen distortion/ Survived abortion." Um, OK. Every time I listened to that song, I thought of this stupid book my mom read about a woman who was supposed to have been aborted as a fetus and grew up to be an ardent activist against abortion. It's hard to imagine the self-appointed "Antichrist Superstar" hanging with the anti-choice crowd. This was probably not the association Manson was shooting for. Then again, someone who once wrote a song called "Cake and Sodomy" is probably used to being misunderstood.

Speaking of "Cake and Sodomy," where the hell is it on this CD? And how about "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)"? And how about that aforementioned Willy Wonka song, which is actually called "Tunnel Song"? Any of these tunes, to which I can actually hum the choruses despite never having been a die-hard Manson fan, should have been given precedence on this CD over weary Goth-rock junk like "Tourniquet" and "Get Your Gunn."

You might think that Manson's whole act—complete with a keyboardist named Madonna Wayne Gacy—is kind of ridiculous; there are plenty of points on this disc where Manson's music backs that claim. In a lame stab at shock value, little kids spout profanities on "Lunchbox," but the effect was used much more masterfully on OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The poppy refrain of "mOBSCENE" ("Be…aggressive! Be, be aggressive!")—sung by cheerleaders, no less!—is catchy but really, really dumb.

But every time you're ready to write him off as the obligatory recording artist of the moment to piss off the religious right, Manson comes out of left field with a surprisingly heartfelt, poetic track like "The Reflecting God" or "Long Hard Road Out of Hell." The latter happens to share its title with his autobiography, co-written with Neil Strauss, in which he talks about molesting his underage teenage fans and hiding dildos in his teachers' desks at school. Hmm. I'm not sure why I just wrote that, if not for the plain purpose of titillation. (See, I'm learning so much from Manson already).

Could this CD be Marilyn Manson's retirement party? Some signs point to yes. Unless they're Britney Spears, most artists wait until the end of their careers to release a "Best of" compilation (although, if her dwindling record sales are any indication, Ms. Jailbait might be getting ready to call it quits, too). Plus, Manson is planning to settle down with his longtime girlfriend, burlesque artist Dita von Teese, after the two have a shockingly traditional wedding ceremony this winter in Berlin. Manson himself swears this isn't the swan song to his musical career—but then why call it Lest We Forget? Oh, Marilyn, we won't forget you. At least not until you take up golf and become completely irrelevant like Alice Cooper.

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