It's no shock that Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals is designed to be oh so shocking. The cover image Manson as an anorexic, silver-skinned alien with breasts and airbrushed genitals, not to mention a very admirable red-headed dye job is merely the starting point. Next, scan the song titles: ''I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me),'' ''The Dope Show,'' ''Coma White.'' Scary! Then, observe how Manson wires the songs with couplets meant to impact like electric-shock volt surges: ''She's got eyes like Zapruder/And a mouth like heroin,'' ''I'm just a boy playing the suicide king,'' ''They slit our throats/Like we were flowers.'' Oooh spooky!
All of this is actually comic in its ridiculousness, much like Manson's entertaining (if not completely believable) memoir, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. It's also very good showmanship, not to mention valuable to society it's important to have decadent rock heroes who upset conservative institutions. (Could anything be less threatening, less rock & roll, than the quaint neo-swing revival music you can share with parents and grandparents?) But scandalous? Only a tortured adolescent (or the most God-fearing elder citizen) would think a line like ''I am resigned to this wicked f---ing world/On its way to hell'' is either shocking or good poetry.
In fact, there is something deeply outrageous about Mechanical Animals, a jolt of the most unexpected kind: It's a Manson album that delivers on music as much as on image. Portrait of an American Family and Antichrist Superstar, the band's first two albums, were caterwauls of sound music that spun its wheels in dated industrial-riff sludge. Mechanical Animals features a new coproducer (Michael Beinhorn) and a new guest guitarist (former Chili Pepper Dave Navarro). But the improvement could just as well be psychological. Between the success of his book and the Christian Right's attempts to ban the band's concerts, Manson knows that his moment in pop culture has arrived. It was time to put up or shut down, and he and his band have done the former.
Looking back in mascara'd anger, Manson and Beinhorn have fashioned music steeped in glam rock and concept-album bombast but updated with a crunching intensity. Much as he did with Soundgarden's Superunknown, Beinhorn has taken a roaring, big-screen assault and reined it in just enough. He layers the songs with cooing backup singers, electronica burbles, skulking guitars, and synths at their most decadently new wavy. The effect is often spectacular: a lurid cabaret-rock revue for the post-global-economy meltdown. ''Post Human'' and ''New Model No. 15'' fly like spitballs; ''The Dope Show'' and ''I Want to Disappear'' swagger and swish, glitter rock injected with a rave-new-world brutality. ''The Last Day on Earth,'' a lumbering glower ballad that builds with wave upon wave of earth-scorching guitar, achieves a decadent aural beauty.
Setting aside his lung-shredding scream he's rock's most tone-deaf frontman Manson spends his time aping thin white dukes like Marc Bolan and David Bowie. That isn't the only reminder of an earlier rock era. The songs' numerous references to mind-numbing drugs and sexual escapades (the latter with sci-fi allusions) also recall glam's anything-goes heyday. But there's a crucial '90s difference. Glam wallowed in naughty-boy insouciance, but Manson is glum and pessimistic. He's disgusted with backstabbers (''Speed of Pain'') and the religious right (''Rock Is Dead''). At the end of the concept record Antichrist Superstar, Manson had conquered the planet. On Mechanical Animals, he's not sure he wants it after all.
Ultimately, Manson's bogeyman creepiness, astutely packaged as it is, feels too slick and manufactured to be true. Would anyone this sinful and depraved worry so much about the fickleness of the media, as Manson does in ''New Model No. 15'' and ''The Dope Show'' (''They love you when you're on all the covers/When you're not then they love another'')? But with Mechanical Animals, he's at least lived up to his sonic promise. Call him Malice Cooper and pray he won't become instantly irrelevant, as old golf-loving Alice did. And if he does well, that's showbiz, and there's nothing particularly shocking about that, either. A-