The first time I heard Red Black and Blue I misheard the first lines sung after the spoken-word intro. What I heard was “Set fire to the Tree of Life / love or death / just to watch the suffering”.
For my entire first listen, that question felt like the crux of the album. Do our fundamental passions drive us to destroy ourselves or do they push life forward to its natural and appropriate conclusion?
This remains front and center in the title track. Chaos cannot be cured but the influence it has over existence often feels adversarial. We have all heard some variation of “change or die.” One of my artistic heroes (equal in stature to Marilyn Manson) is William S. Burroughs. This very question was often at the center of Burroughs’ writing, from Junky to The Western Lands. Burroughs wrote that life is defined by process and change and that all pleasure is rooted in relief. Relief is the absence of suffering and suffering is a predictable consequence of process and change. The allure of addiction is relief from life itself.
The Book of Job and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s telling of the Faust story discuss whether suffering is “evil” or if it is endemic to the nature of life. It is common for those fresh off of bad relationships to say “I wasted X years on that POS.” Or “X years of marriage, gone because of (infidelity, substance abuse, etc. by the offending party).” This reveals an unspoken attitude that something has been debited from our lives. The phrasing has a close association with what we mean when we talk about “wasting” one’s life or time.
Claiming that suffering is objectively necessary arouses comparisons with social Darwinism and social accelerationism. Historically and ideologically, those concepts gravitate toward fascism. On the other hand, Marcel Proust held that his most valuable experiences happened while suffering. The question of suffering is shaped profoundly by context. Does a thwarted intention indicate waste? What about the intentions of one who causes waste?
Sooner or later, free will enters the equation. Are we or are we not empowered to choose our own goals and evaluate our own success, failure or contentment? If we are, what about everything beside our priorities? John Lennon said that life is what happens when you are making other plans.
If the camera of your mind is always running whether you are happy, miserable, safe, unsafe, in or out of control…then there will be more footage of things not going according to plan.
“Love or death” might be more vague than “not for death”, but I like my misunderstanding. It suggests that the fire consuming the Tree of Life might be love, death or both.
Not that I’d sell short the spoken word part. I love how quintessentially Mansonian the word play is, like the echoing shapes and voids in various contexts. A needle in a void, followed by a snake on the surface of water. Next is a bee in mid-air. It reminds me of the lyrics to Bowie’s Rock’n Roll Suicide: “Time takes a cigarette / puts it in your mouth / you pull on your finger, than another finger / then you’re a cigarette”.
There is an associative continuity between the beings in the void. This continuity, for me, is almost stronger than the apparent lyrical construction. If I might drift completely into hyperbole for a while, these lyrics are more visual than poetic. It reminds me of David Lynch (in a good way). When the music video for the title track came out, I wondered if the use of digitally manipulated photographs and industrial imagery was expressing a David Lynch influence.
Let us not forget the music, though: Don’t Chase The Dead is a gloriously simple wonder. It feels like musical territory that Marilyn Manson must be familiar with. It reminds me of how The Birthday Massacre channel the legacy of Siouxsie and the Banshees. That influence is closer to Marilyn Manson than them, but this is the only song Manson has written that sounds like it. The understated use of keyboards and rattling percussion bring a lot to the song. It is a subtle but effective way of bridging the goth-alt country energy exchange between Manson and Shooter Jennings.
I mentioned in my first We Are Chaos review that each song beautifully segues into the next. This is especially true with the songs that are the most different from any other Marilyn Manson material: Paint You With My Love and Half-Way & One Step Forward. The lyrical treatment of “the void” comes closer to the foreground in these songs. Subject matter includes the value of memories and the potential for blindness within “calculated” incrementalism.
Closer to the end of the album, the dynamism between Manson and Shooter becomes nearly as pronounced as Paint You With My Love and Half-Way & One Step Forward. That same energy exchange can be heard during Solve Coagula, which has lyrics that echo words I’ve heard in my own head many times: “there’s no one else I want to be like / so I stay the same like nobody else”.
In the lyrics of the final song, the meaning of the word ‘needle’ is a matter of perspective. In an Apple Music interview coinciding with the release of We Are Chaos, Manson suggested that it could be the needle of a record player. This reminds me of Manson’s online journal entry immediately preceding Lest We Forget in which he wrote about “all (his) goddamn Frankensteins coming back for some sick closure.” It creates the impression of Manson’s art having its own autonomous existence. Like all art, it becomes separate from its creator.
There is a more intuitive lyrical connection, though: the needle in the horror that can fix your blindness. The associative transformations (needle, snake, bee) can distract us from the backdrop. What does a needle do? It pierces and connects. Using a needle to “fix your blindness” almost conjures the image of a child poking holes in something to give it eyes.
This could lead to the autonomous creation: the thing that gets scratched and put away, never to be played again. Or, if the needle scratches a surface before breaking, maybe there is nowhere for it to go.
Perfume and Keep My Head Together both reminded me of an essay that Marilyn Manson wrote immediately before the release of The Golden Age of Grotesque called Putting Holes In Happiness.
Around the same time, a forum called The Oracle was created on Manson’s website where fans could post questions and possibly receive a public reply. One poster said that they knew someone experiencing a suicidal crisis. In Manson’s response, he included a link to this essay.
Putting Holes In Happiness describes a pernicious subtext to the 90’s, gen-X-led celebration of individuality. Other alternative musicians from the same era, like Billy Corgan, have talked about the gen-X effort at demystifying psychological catharsis as one of the strengths of that generation. Corgan has claimed that he set a unique example by discussing subjects like personal, childhood trauma with the press. There is something to be said for that: obviously, a social climate where psychological struggle is not stigmatized is one where it is easier to get help. Manson himself has not minced words about his personal history.
An unfortunate consequence, though, is the potential of privileging a personal narrative over the deeper, interpretive possibilities that art needs in order to survive. Resonance is the lifeblood of art and, if everything is a strict, literal, memoir-like personal statement…it discourages the spread of resonance.
It also has more superficially annoying consequences, such as the proliferation of psychoanalytic interpretation. Art is frequently reduced to a veiled autobiographical statement. It creates a culture where college students and high schoolers feel like literature only “comes to life” when they are given a SparkNotes study guide. This would make the life or background of an artist a better key to their work than their own art. This elevates a factual narrative over interpretation.
This correlates with the rise of social media and the influencer / social media personality. Inevitably this impacted the relationship between celebrities and their fans. The exhibition of a public personality is now as much of a point of contact between the public and an artist as the artist’s material.
When personality and autobiography are privileged above everything else, discussion of personal meaning and motivation dominates the conversation. When someone sounds off about politics, philosophy or art, it is now easier to speculate about their unstated mental and emotional motivations than listening to their words. One might say that the line between pathology and empowerment has been blurred.
In The Golden Age of Grotesque, there are three songs that are explicitly about this blurring: (s)AINT, KA-BOOM KA-BOOM and The Bright Young Things. The last two are particularly relevant.
KA-BOM KA-BOOM describes the futility of an existence in which everything is only relatable to the most directly personal values. All interaction with the outside world is barely distinguishable from a consumer choice. If the outside world has any value, it is as an occasion for the inner world.
This, for Marilyn Manson, is a bit of a challenging undertaking: one of the defining statements of his career is the origin of meaning within the self. At the same time, this is precedented. Even on Antichrist Superstar, his signature work in the eyes of many, the crab-bucket homicide of capitalism is discussed in the first two songs.
To clarify, I do not think Manson has ever ceased to believe that the origin of meaning is personal. But songs like (s)AINT, KA-BOOM KA-BOOM and The Bright Young Things reveal his awareness of gray areas.
Social reinforcement has a way of shaping our internal worlds. When consumerism is your only window on existence, autonomy is traded for expression. Without action, little else remains. Social media has made it easier than ever for our pain and angst to be offered to us as a consolation prize for the surrender of our autonomy.
This adds depth to Manson’s reply to the suicidal fan on the Oracle forum: do not accept your own suffering as payment.