Brian Warner has gone under many names over the course of his long and controversial career. He is best known as Marilyn Manson, the provocative rock star who derived his name, and to a degree, his attitude, by mashing up two of California’s most recognizable public figures — a so-called sex symbol and a serial killer. In his music, Manson has also used various nicknames designed to provoke moral panic, from “The God of F—” to the “Antichrist Superstar.”
But in the spoken intro to “Red Black and Blue,” the opening track of his new album We Are Chaos, Manson takes up a new, significantly less edgy moniker. “I am the king bee,” Manson growls in a distorted voice, “And I will destroy every flower/ And I will cover the earth in honey/ And everyone will eat themselves.”
This strange intro is representative of We Are Chaos as a whole. We Are Chaos largely continues the comeback streak Manson started with his previous two albums, The Pale Emperor and Heaven Upside Down, but for the first time, Manson departs from the shocking spectacle-driven performances that have defined most of his career.
It’s not that Manson’s trademark raging guitars and booming industrial drums are missing from We Are Chaos. The rest of “Red Black and Blue” is as boisterous as Heaven Upside Down — a flurry of jagged riffs and pulsing bass, with Manson’s ghoulish screams of “Am I garbage or God?/ Church or a trashcan?” piercing through the wave of chaos.
However, these familiar tones are mostly overshadowed by Manson’s new, more mature sound. We Are Chaos sees the rock star collaborate with country musician Shooter Jennings, who co-wrote and co-produced the album alongside him. Jennings’ influence is clearly felt in the title track, “We Are Chaos” — possibly Manson’s most melodic song ever. Simple country chord progressions are blended with goth rock; as the opening acoustic guitar leads into a heavier electric section, Manson arrives at a sound that could even be described as nihilistic pop.
On “Paint You With My Love,” Manson channels ’80s David Bowie with a surprisingly harmonious ballad that starts out almost serene before it’s kicked into overdrive. “Paint You” is followed by another splendidly odd sound for Manson in “Halfway & One Step Forward.” Jennings’ piano on “Halfway” fits incredibly naturally, betraying the fact that it’s not a regular element in Manson’s band.
The depth of songs such as “Paint You” and “Halfway” makes the more familiar tracks on We Are Chaos feel limited. When Manson repeatedly screeches “You’re dead longer than you’re alive” on the seething “Infinite Darkness” or indulges in juvenile wordplay with “I f—ing love you/ I love f—ing you” on “Keep My Head Together,” the attempted provocation is not as effective, even if these songs largely still work.
Not only are the more innovative songs on We Are Chaos catchier and more accessible, but they also feel more introspective. In “Solve Coagula,” for example, Manson reflects on the shift in his musical persona, regaining a self-awareness that is missing from some of the heavier tracks. In one of the album’s best moments, Manson, backed by a light guitar riff, lands on the catchy refrain, “I’m not special, I’m just broken/ And I don’t want to be fixed.”
“Broken Needle” is the perfect closing track for We Are Chaos. Though it was written before the coronavirus pandemic, this brooding power ballad is especially poignant now: Manson asks with sorrow and clarity, “Are you alright?/ ‘Cause I’m not OK.” Walking the line between Southern rock and glam metal, “Broken Needle” especially benefits from Jennings’ production, which makes the song a memorable, epic catharsis and emotional pinnacle to the album.
With We Are Chaos, Manson comes to terms with the fact that even his most shocking antics can’t be all that distressing given the grotesque circus act that has been 2020. In the absence of Manson’s characteristic shock factor, a more refined musicianship has taken form. Though not everything on We Are Chaos is equally novel, this album sees Manson expand his musical style in unexpected, exciting ways.