After almost 20 years and 50 million album sales, the artist formerly known as Brian Hugh Warner has suffered a career slowdown recently. His last album The High End of Low, released in 2009, performed very poorly and led to him being dropped by his corporate US record company. Hitting his shock-rock peak a decade ago, his subsequent decline in headline-grabbing infamy has slowly settled into a sustained commercial slump. But the defiant 43-year-old has now signed with a London-based indie label, declaring his eighth studio album a "comeback" and a liberating return to his spiky garage-punk roots. Judging by its ferociously snarly and punchy sound, "fightback" might be more accurate.
The short promotional film that trailed Born Villain online certainly hinted at an intense slasher-movie thrill ride of torture, terror and ritual bloodshed. Of course, Manson's disturbing videos, outlandish costumes and spectacular stage shows have always been impressive. Drawing on glam rock, science fiction, gothic literature, horror films, Berlin cabaret, Bowie and Brecht and other sources, he was always more culturally savvy and artistically ambitious than most of his alt-rock peers.
But over the years, many of his outrageous ideas have been absorbed into the mainstream. Indeed, his most obvious heir in the current pop landscape is Lady Gaga, who likes playing similar conceptual tricks with shape-shifting identity and theatrical presentation. Manson's guest appearance on a remix of Gaga's 2009 single LoveGame made perfect sense.
Manson claims the raw, ragged sound of Born Villain pays homage to bands he loved in his youth – mostly heavier post-punk artists such as Killing Joke, Bauhaus and The Birthday Party. There is certainly an agreeably noirish and chaotic fury to tracks such as the opening number Hey, Cruel World, with its zombie-croak vocals, serrated guitar riffs and metal-bashing steampunk rhythm. Likewise, the remorseless chainsaw grind of No Reflection and the hard-driving thrash-monster stomp of Murderers are Getting Prettier Every Day builds to a visceral blast-furnace roar before unravelling in a blizzard of feedback.
Lyrically, Manson taps into some familiar themes on most of the tracks: voyeurism and psychosis, decadence and degradation, obsessive love and transgressive desire. The sleazy scrape and shudder of Pistol Whipped is loaded with images of sexually charged violence, as is the deceptively pretty power ballad Breaking the Same Old Ground. The singer also plays the sneery ringmaster of some kind of sick talent show on the sinister, slithering funk-rock clatter of Slo-Mo-Tion, summoning echoes both of Iggy Pop in his late 1970s New Wave prime and the homicidal puppet-master of the Saw movies.
Always keen to advertise his cultured side, Manson scatters the album with literary references to Baudelaire and Greek mythology. He even opens Overneath the Path of Misery with a growled monologue from Shakespeare's Macbeth. There is also a much-needed reminder of the singer's twisted sense of humour in the bonus track, a revved-up cover of Carly Simon's classic 1972 paean to celebrity narcissism, You're So Vain, which features the Hollywood pin-up Johnny Depp on guitar and drums. A pretty enjoyable mauling, and quite a good self-mocking joke, too.
A little more of this playfulness and wit might have helped lift the rest of Born Villain, which is not just lacking in levity but also low on decent melodies.
Too many tracks, including Flowers of Evil and Disengaged, settle for generic industrial-rock and goth-punk templates. Slower numbers, such as Children of Cain, end up as ponderous swamp-blues dirges. The whole album could comfortably have been shorter, sharper and smarter.
Manson has always been skilled at creating intense moods and stunning visuals, but a paucity of memorable tunes remains his weak spot. Maybe his friend and fellow freak-pop icon Lady Gaga should give him a helping hand on his next album?
Born Villain is a respectable career fightback, full of crunchy riffs and punchy vocals, but not quite the knockout blow needed to regain his title as the world heavyweight champion of shock rock.