Timing is everything in pop music, and Marilyn Manson hit a zeitgeist in the mid-'90s with Antichrist Superstar, riding the post-alternative wave to the top of the charts with his dark, arty, industrial metal. He was a proud shock artist and a great interview, one of the few rockers of his time who stood his own against his attackers by offering articulate, informed counterarguments to their blustering rage. Like any shock rocker, though, the novelty wears thin fast, and what was once scary turns into self-parody. Manson, no stranger to rock history, attempted to circumvent this by turning quickly to the left with the glam-soaked Mechanical Animals, but in doing so he lost huge portions of his audience, and by the time he returned to scary industrial metal form on Holy Wood in 2000, he seemed out of date and few critics or fans paid attention. Three years later, he unleashed his fifth album, The Golden Age of Grotesque, and he still seemed out of step with the times, but there was a difference -- he sounded comfortable with that development. Also, by 2003, rock, particularly heavy metal, was in desperate need of artists with a grand vision and ambition, which Manson has in spades. After all, The Golden Age is designed to be a modern update of German art, vaudeville, and decadent Hollywood glamour of the '30s, all given a thudding metallic grind, of course. In an era when heavy rockers have no idea what happened in the '80s, much less the '30s, it's hard not to warm to this, even if his music isn't your own personal bag.
Musically, Manson isn't departing from his basic sound -- he's following through on the return to basics Holy Wood represented -- but his first self-production has resulted in an album that feels light and nimble, even though it's drenched in distortion and screams. It feels as if Manson now feels liberated from not being consistently in the spotlight, and his music has opened up as well. With that new freedom, he gets silly on occasion -- the gibberish on the ridiculously titled "This Is the New Sh*t," the appropriation of Faith No More's "Be Aggressive" for "mOBSCENE," the lyric "You are the church/I am the steeple/When we f*ck we are God's People" -- but instead of knocking the record off track, they are part of the big picture on this oversized album. What matters here, as it always does on a Marilyn Manson album, is the overarching concept, and while The Golden Age of Grotesque has some kind of theme, its particulars aren't discernible, but the overall feeling resonates strongly. This messy, unruly, noisy burlesque may fall on its face, but it puts itself in the position where it can either stand or fall, and, unlike in the past, Manson isn't taking himself so seriously that he sounds stiff. It all adds up to a very good album -- maybe not his best, and certainly not one that will attract the most attention, but it's a hell of a lot grander than what his peers are producing, and holds its own with his previous records. It's also a bit more fun, too, and that counts for a lot.