It wasn’t a surprise when a new generation of transgressive metal captivated the ears of angry (mostly male) adolescents in the ‘90s, possibly the most foreboding and dissonant music that had ever gone multiplatinum up to that moment: Korn, Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson. Even with Trent Reznor mentoring him, the latter showed shockingly little interest in songform on his early records, deconstructing the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” as a threatening nursery rhyme and scaling the charts on the sheer novelty of it.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise either, when these bands figured out they had to resort to some kind of musicality to solidify their success, though Manson seemed to have the toughest challenge of all. Korn’s rhythm section was frenzied and polyrhythmic, good for strange licks and skittering beats that mirrored the squealing, Cypress Hill-style hip-hop they interpreted for guitars and bass. Limp Bizkit axeman Wes Borland was something of a virtuoso, an effects junkie with plenty of theorist’s interest in such avant-garde fringe-alt as Mr. Bungle and Ween. These dudes flanked their attention-grabbing frontmen with sonics to fill out the idea. But Manson’s sidemen were not a notable part of any of his signatures, and he treated them as such by routinely replacing them; he went through three guitarists between 1996 and 1998, the years of his commercial peak.So by the time Mechanical Animals arrived to plant a flag where 1996’s abrasive, amelodic Antichrist Superstar had first catapulted him to national notoriety, the most shocking thing about it was how tuneful it was, and not in any recognizable way that made sense to a bankable metal singer in 1998.It was heavy on ballads, for one thing. The opening “Great Big White World” was a sweeping, soft-focus dirge with mournful guitar accents. Its watery cousin “Disassociative” split the difference between this cosmic Bowie shtick and a chorus more redolent of say, Gavin Rossdale, whose popularity was at the 11th hour. But the breadth of styles was unprecedented: He sings “Coma White” like he’s heard To Bring You My Love. There’s a cracked ‘50s prom ballad called “Fundamentally Loathsome.” And the most surprising tune of possibly Manson’s whole career is “Speed of Pain,” which plays like “Goodbye Moonman” from Rick & Morty, two decades ahead of its time and with a vocoder and female backing vocals just to drive home the insanity. It’s not the goofball (but on-point Bowie homage) plot that drives home this album’s in-love-with-a-drug libretto. It’s the shameless stylistic excess.
When Manson wasn’t debuting this demented new croon, he was embracing Gary Glitter-style glam rock, especially on the hit singles, “The Dope Show,” “Rock Is Dead,” and “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me),” which were all swinging shuffles and slo-mo disco stomps.
Occasionally the catchy new flourishes had a sarcastic overbite, like the gang of soulettes behind him on “Speed of Pain” and “I Don’t Like the Drugs,” or the Beck-cum-Jimmy Fallon falsetto do-do-dos that cue up “User Friendly,” though it’s hard to argue Bowie’s “plastic soul” was comparatively sincere. Manson’s targets, though, as you or the Onion would imagine, tended towards whatever sounded most scandalous to put in kids’ brains at the time, hence the equivocation of “cops and queers” on “The Dope Show,” which boasted one of 1998’s most quoted choruses, and topped it off with X-Files-style synth whooshes to make the timestamp extra large.
There were better transgressive moments, though, like when Manson in his silver-boobed glory inhabited “New Model No. 15” claiming to be “correctly political” and explaining “I can suck it and smile.” The astonishing, deeply cynical “User Friendly” was luckily not burned into kids’ sternums all summer, even with the assist from G-funk synths: “I’m not in love but / I’m gonna fuck you ‘til / Something better comes along.” And then there’s “I Want to Disappear,” which could be tapping an actual cruel vein of his fans with a mic-drop like “We love the abuse because it makes us feel like we are needed,” except we know from Manson’s carefully considered response to the Columbine school shooting that his heart has a brain in there. Just because it’s surrounded by hollower fortune cookies like “God is just a statistic and “She wants me to be perfect like Kennedy” doesn’t mean a broken clock doesn’t land on a note of empathy a couple times on his camp opus.