Post-mortem: We Are Chaos
Marilyn Manson’s career has been an eventful one, there’s no denying that, but what I find particularly interesting is how he manages to find reinvention at the most crucial moments – to the point where it’s as if he knows his relevance is on the guillotine. It’s no secret that he’s had a lot of ups and downs in his three decades of making music. The man fluctuates between two personas: a profound prophet, and a lowbrow, brainless jester – admittedly donning the latter more than the former – and I’m convinced he’s completely self-aware of these two personalities. The bit that makes him so fascinating and by association enduring, is that just when you’re about to write him off for good, slipping on the banana peel for the umpteenth time, landing firmly on his face and writhing around on the floor with a pathetic desperation, he somehow manages to bounce back stronger than before. At this point I just account this rare pattern of events to be Manson’s Thing. Seldom do you see an artist rebound like this guy does.
By the turn of the ‘10s, I had at this point long accepted that Marilyn Manson was over the hill – he wrote a timeless and classic trilogy of albums and proceeded those works with a decade of solid-to-average follow-ups for the LOLs. To be honest, this story is an age-old one for a vast majority of bands, but then The Pale Emperor happened and changed everything I thought I knew about Marilyn Manson. That album – with the help of Tyler Bates – reinvented the wheel for him, but moreover it was a statement that proclaimed Marilyn Manson still had some gas left in the tank. However, this elegant chapter in Manson’s career was, of course, followed up with a contradicting regression, having me question whether The Pale Emperor was just a fluke. In 2020, that burning question was brazenly answered when We Are Chaos stormed through the gates.
If Manson had indeed conceded to the whims of what was to be expected of him for Heaven Upside Down, it almost certainly looks like an artistic feint in retrospect. Now, the perfidy of Heaven Upside Down only stands to bolster We Are Chaos’ radiant magnificence. Of course, this is probably the delusional ramblings of a long-time fan trying desperately to assimilate a reason why the 2017 offering was so bewilderingly derivative, thereby having me attempt to give it a more meaningful purpose as a result, but I digress. Suffice it to say, We Are Chaos stands as one of my most listened to albums of 2020, and it hasn’t diminished an iota in quality since my initial listen. One can’t deny or deter from what is a masterfully produced album; it’s a record filled with ubiquitous Manson traits and is yet another liminal point of transition for him. We Are Chaos is folk-y, pop-y, psychedelic, and it’s all underpinned by his bread-and-butter industrial rock style – to the point where Manson knows exactly where not to cross the line. This is easily the best album Marilyn Manson has produced in twenty years, and it’s clear that shaking up his partnerships with other peers in the industry does wonders for his creative juices.
Indeed, We Are Chaos is so assuredly excellent it has spurred me on to do this post-mortem for Manson’s eleventh entry. Why? Well, firstly because it’s a good excuse to flex some of the pointless knowledge I have stored away in my brain, but moreover this is the first time in a very long time Manson has made something this thoughtful and multifaceted. I grew up on Manson when he was genuinely considered to be a threat to American society – a demonic terrorist hellbent on burning the fabric of the American Dream, subverting the status quo and deconstructing the hypocritic veil of religion. In those days, the Marilyn Manson motley crew devoured the ‘70’s rock band lifestyle and mutated it into something that would make even Ozzy Osbourne blush – scoffing at hedonism and self-destruction as though they were child’s play. Indeed, rightly so, to a layman, people will remember Manson for those crazy years; and for those who grew up on the less relevant years of his career, they will read about those wonder-years in awe. However, there is an injustice to this perception, because for all the abrasive aesthetics and imagery, there was a philosophical side to Manson that is scarcely talked about now. Granted, anything post Holywood conveys complacency to an almost exclusive degree, one that just focused on the superficial rock ‘n’ roll slants of his persona – sex and drugs – rather than discussing tangible, meaningful topics. Ergo, twenty years removed from a facet of clever wordplay, sharp wit and heightened purpose, it’s understandable why one of his most important skills has faded into the realm of myth.
Even with The Pale Emperor – a record that put him back onto the map for being mature and adventurous, filled with purpose and a rejuvenated energy – it still had an absence of his most earnest qualities. While The Pale Emperor is a return to form and a classy project in its own right, it lacks thematic substance; and with Heaven Upside Down, it regresses and doubles down on that threadbare, mindless hedonistic mantra of the 00s further still, with a couple of exceptions. Yes, it’s hard to believe at this point because it was such a long time ago, but Marilyn Manson once wrote loosely-written conceptual albums with profound affirmations. Which brings me to the point: upon hearing We Are Chaos, I initially wrote off the lyrics in places and chopped the album down to being another modern Manson album with great presentation and production values, but not one with a lot of substance in the way of themes. Now that I’ve had time to stew on this album for over half a year, I’ve realised I was largely wrong with that assumption. We Are Chaos is penned by many to be his best record since Holywood, but it’s also the most thoughtful and planned out album of his since Holywood, too. There’s a real focus on pertinent themes surrounding Brian as a person – duality (which I initially caught on to as early as the titular single release), self-reflection and the biggest theme of the record, death and rebirth.
And so, in this post-mortem I will attempt to dissect We Are Chaos and draw some conclusions from its labyrinthian structures. Disclaimer: the theories presented here don’t reflect Manson’s actual intentions or thoughts, nor do I claim them to be – that isn’t my goal, and it actually deters from part of this album’s message. Ultimately, if I can have you walk away from this article knowing that I articulated why I think this album is the most pensive chapter in Brian Warner’s entire career, I will have achieved what I set out to do here. So, with that in mind, here we go.
1. REFLECTION & DUALISM
Probably the biggest proponents of We Are Chaos – outside of its themes of circular processes – are reflection and dualism, and they play a central role in the album’s narrative. For anyone who owns a physical copy of the deluxe album will know, the LP’s artwork is enshrined in a foil board jacket, giving off an obscured reflection of the bearer holding the LP in their hands: their shadowy, distorted face embedded in Manson’s oil painting, which depicts a stoic visage of Manson in the most abstract way possible. We Are Chaos’ artwork is symbiotically tied to a lot of the themes pertaining to the album. In regards to the corporeal version of this artwork, it gives off a literal reflection, but it’s also one half of the dualism mentioned earlier, if you compare it with the solid black backdrop the standard artwork runs with. The foiled version looks bright, mysterious, alluring and is antithetical to its standard counterpart of cynical voided nothingness. This is the playful way in which Manson will tackle themes of perception, loss, death, and legacy; the ambiguity is textured and layered as such to give you the clues, but leaves it up to you to conclude whether those answers are optimistic or pessimistic. And that’s the biggest element to be taken away from this record – it is a cosmic gateway into Manson’s soul, but no matter how introspective it gets, We Are Chaos’ reflective sensibilities offer a layer of deception in that the projection is as much passed on to the listener as well, making it as much about you as it is about him.
This much is apparent with lyrics found in “Red, Black & Blue”, where the antichrist croons:
[“I can stick a needle in the horror and fix your blindness
(Your blindness, see I)”]
and later on
[“My eyes are mirrors…”]
This is Manson overtly declaring he can break the darkness and reveal his insecurities and truths to you, but at the cost of you looking into yourself before you judge. This is Manson seductively suggesting that you will be self-reflecting with him, a command that is immediately followed up on with a couple of hypnotic hisses which then segue into his life-long battle with religion, infamy, and his own looming mortality (topics we will tap into later on). “Red, Black & Blue” is particularly interesting in that it throws a barrage of subjects into the blender whilst using the key indicator I mentioned earlier: perception. On the surface, the track seems to go for the classic Manson trope and attacks religion, but it would be completely asinine to rule that as being the meat and potatoes of the track. No, there’s a lot more going on here if you dig a little deeper. There are lies and dual meanings to lyrical passages. For instance, Manson offers you safe passage to the truth right at the start of the track but then immediately follows up on that by proclaiming he is “the King Bee” and the bringer of the end of days. The King Bee is, of course, a paradox as such a thing does not exist. But then why say it? My theory is that Manson is asking you to extract the truth from the lyrics he lays before you, because there are always lies and exaggerations in words, as well as his own interpretations; as such, there are red herrings dotted everywhere and it’s up to you to find that linear line of truth – your truth.
[“My eyes are mirrors
All I can see are gods on the left
And demons on the right”]
[“Am I garbage or God?
Church or a trashcan?
Either way you’re a waste of my time”]
The two excerpts above are very interesting examples of wordplay which can be observed in several ways. The first lyric, as mentioned earlier, implies that he has eyes which will reflect onto those that gaze into them. But for a moment, let’s assume the political side of Manson and suggest that he’s referring to political ideologies, in that he sees gods on the left (Democrats) and demons on the right (Republican). Now let’s interpret that with a mirrored reflection, which is now the inverse of what I have just said, tipping everything on its head. For my part, I feel this is reaching though; given Manson’s middling sensibilities these days, I feel the more obvious message resides in this: the song is called red, black and blue – black being the absence of colour – one could say Manson isn’t advocating political parties (though, history would suggest he’d most certainly lean more on the left), and that maybe the colour black represents the drastic divide in those two opposing factions, implying America needs to have radical change in order to mend the wounds of America’s growing unrest. Keep this part in mind for later on, because it will hold more validity with the album’s overarching message. The same goes for the second passage here – is Manson pondering over existentialism and self-deprecating over his own legacy, or is it merely the futility of religion? At least here, this lyric is far less ambiguous and he concludes that whatever the answer may be, the results aren’t worth a damn.
Overall, the point to be made here is that in this one track, Manson pens out a number of subjects with numerous ways in which to perceive them. You could gleefully indulge on them in a superficial manner and just hear Manson pouring out historical events (the epoch with his battle against religion, and his anarchistic youth), the present (the reputation he’s garnered from the past and watching as it slowly creeps up with him), and the future (his own mortality). However, the vague wistful construction of his words leaves a number of avenues open for you to dig deeper, should you choose to do so. The underlying principle here is that Manson is trying to get you to reflect with him and make a course for your own judgements – there is no right or wrong answer.
Of course, the execution of this self-reflecting is done so in a way that is told to us using dualism and allegories. “Don’t Chase the Dead”, like most of the tracks here, taps into mourning and his own mortality. The mourning I speculate stems from the death which surrounds Manson as he gets older – spurred on, possibly, by the death of his father, who died in 2017? – and coming to terms with that kind of loss. But, as is always the case with Marilyn Manson, this macabre subject matter is presented with a facetious demeanour; it’s an overtone of light-hearted playfulness with dead serious themes at the base of it.
[“Angels in exile
Here lies the dead
An ice cream truck in your inferno”]
[“I got my tickets to Hell
I know you so well
And I know you wanna be there too”]
[“If tonight lasts forever
It won’t matter if there’s no tomorrow”]
The allegory is obviously death – or rather being prepared for death – and the irony here is that the only time Manson keeps a straight face on the track is when he talks about the mourning of others:
[“Don’t chase the dead
Or they’ll end up chasing you”]
No smoke and mirrors – the only time we hear Manson playing it seriously is in the verse where he tells you nothing good comes from chasing lost ones. It’s a meaningful segment with hopeful reassurances, to be sure. However, it’s an entirely different matter when his own circumstances are put into the limelight, juxtaposing light comedy with those dark lyrical passages like they’re being used as a suit of armour against those judging, and watching.
Similar brazen musings come from the closing portion of the tracklist, “Keep My Head Together”, “Solve Coagula”, and closing epic “Broken Needle”. All of these tracks present an exposed and vulnerable Manson, who is oddly willing to reveal his inner thoughts to you. “Solve Coagula”’s overt fragility is apparent, as Manson opens up pleading for you to stop and listen to his words. The song is a deconstruction of his legend and an attempt to reconstruct an image of a human being – a deeply flawed man that admits he’s broken, and accepts his inability to change. This is tied to “Keep My Head Together”, which is queerly before “Solve Coagula” and reveals how you can’t force someone to change, it would be an easier feat trying to change yourself. This is all underpinned by contemplations for our own decisions: do things happen to us by chance or are they causality for our own actions? Finally, “Broken Needle” gets a little meta, in the sense that he’s not only referencing Snow White, but just maybe, the record you’re spinning on your turntable right now. All that he’s poured onto the album – which took him two long years to make – is coming to an end. Manson affirms his place as an artist and alludes to the fact he will write music until the day he dies, and hopes that his footprint will endure after his death. This is fortified with the vinyl version of the album which sits on an ambient loop after the album has finished – signifying its eternal theme (which we will talk about shortly).
Yes, every morsel of this LP is housed in reflection and dualism to some degree. For many, the titular track “WE ARE CHAOS” stands out like a black sheep in a flock of white ones, and I do feel as though this was intentional. This track in particular embodies several faces which make it so interesting to listen to; from the folk-y, Beatles-esque upbeat instrumentation that moves the song along, to the familiar platitude commentary on humanity’s complexities and intrinsic flaws. Where other tracks break up the macabre themes at times with campy, tongue-in-cheek wordplays over dynamic and dark soundscapes, “WE ARE CHAOS” keeps the two positions segregated from one another – a musical backdrop of vibrant optimism while the lyrics play it absolutely straight, bleak and to the point. There’s a reason why this song was picked to be the first single: for one, it’s the most out-there track on the entire album and buffers some of the blow for long-time fans, but it’s mainly down to the fact it clearly represents dualism as if it were a virtue here. It transparently affirms what you’re getting yourself in for on Manson’s eleventh LP.
2. DEATH IS AN INFINITE CONTRADICTION
In its various forms, death and rebirth are the lynchpin allegories for We Are Chaos. The production on this album is absolutely stunning, dynamic, and incredibly consistent from start to finish. One aspect that stands out to me is the way We Are Chaos makes you feel as though you’re floating in the extramundane, or you’re caught up in someone’s queer dream. The opening seconds of “Red, Black & Blue” make it feel as though you’re being inducted and slowly absorbed into this cosmic peregrination. The watery trills saturate you before welcoming the formless leader’s monologue – a passage presented as if it’s this universe’s dogma. Indeed, this album is conceptually enshrined in chaos, death, rebirth, and new beginnings. The core takeaway from We Are Chaos is that Manson clearly believes in rebirth. Ouroboros, the mythical serpent/dragon represents the cycle of life – death and rebirth – and it is subtly etched into the bulk of “Red, Black & Blue”’s lyrics.
[“See, I was a snake
But I didn’t realize that you could walk on water (I didn’t)
(Walk on water without legs)
Now I’m a bee, the king bee
And I will destroy every flower (I will destroy every flower)
And I will cover the earth in honey (Cover the earth in honey)
And everyone will eat themselves
(And everyone will eat themselves)”]
There’s a lot to unpack here, but all of this section of the song is shrouded in the cycle of life and death. The main character’s rebirth from snake to bee and his quest to cover the world in honey is a really interesting one. To destroy every flower from existence would be catastrophic for the earth, but his endeavour would bring a joyous sweetness to the world and one that would result in everyone eating themselves (like the eternal ring – the Ouroboros). It’s a really palpable string of lyrics that contain a juxtaposition of ideas: life/death, joy/sorrow, and more tellingly, the circulatory process of transforming the earth anew.
Marilyn Manson echoes his sentiments of rebirth in “Infinite Darkness”, where he ponders over both fame and resurrection. The track feels better suited to a grudge he has with someone [famous] rather than being a proper philosophical musing, but his coarse delivery and the theme displays the fleeting cruelty of life, and the futility of fame and how it doesn’t mean a thing – coalescing with previous moments on the album where he spits:
[“Just ’cause you’re famous doesn’t mean you’re worth anything, In this world or the next one or the one before”]
Further evidence to authenticate this album’s mantra is found in the name of the song title “Solve Coagula”, which is Latin for “Solve and Coagula”. In essence, what this means is you have to break something down to make something new. This Latin phrase encompasses everything the album is trying to convey to the listener. It ties in with the superficial commentary of America’s fractured state in “Red, Black & Blue”, Manson’s belief of reincarnation, and his overarching theme of infinite loops. Additionally, if you put “solve et coagula” into a search engine, one of the first images provided is a picture of two dragons forming the eternal ring. Couple that with the vinyl version of the LP sitting on an eternal, ambient loop until you physically turn the record off yourself, and it is abundantly clear Manson put a lot of time and effort into his thematic choices and how they all intertwine.
Going slightly off topic here; when you look at what this album is trying to convey, it’s apparent the vinyl version of We Are Chaos brings the most significant conclusions. It’s clear Manson is advocating this format to get the most lucid experience possible. Hell, he’s even been noted saying the album was written to have the archaic Side A/Side B narrative. That aside, given how many clues and little breadcrumbs come from the vinyl version alone – clues that don’t contribute anything to actually listening to the album itself – it’s telling that everything was meticulously thought out to be the greater sum of its parts. A plan to deliver the ultimate experience. The closest we get to this kind of experience was with Holywood and the cryptic competition game and tarot cards that came with the album. Still, little easter eggs aside, We Are Chaos is an artistic triumph. Some of my theories or conclusions may not be 100% embraced by everybody, but the important thing to remember is that We Are Chaos made me think and at least attempt to dissect and draw my own conclusions from it, and that is something I haven’t done with a Marilyn Manson record for nearly twenty years. The creative fire burning here is encouraging, and the themes presented are meaningful, earnest, and intriguing. Given the allegations he’s currently facing in 2021, this could well be the end of the line for Manson’s career if it doesn’t go his way, but at this point I’ve written him off far too many times in the past, to the point where he’ll no doubt come back stronger than ever. Time will tell, I guess.