Nothing’s Shocking
Eminem and Marilyn Manson Fail to Shock and Awe

So lately I’ve become addicted to Breakfast at Sulimay’s.

If you haven’t seen this little Internet sensation, here’s the concept: three Philadelphia senior citizens get together at their favorite diner once a week and review new tracks by modern musical artists. Last time, they talked about metal band Mastodon and electro-poppers The Juan McLean. It’s a lot funnier and a lot less “get off my lawn” than you’re expecting – thoughtful Joe offers up some cogent musical criticism at times, while regular-guy Bill and salty Ann trade wisecracks.

My favorite bits so far have involved Ann’s love of metal – she headbangs her way through the Sepultura review, and complains that Mastodon’s “Oblivion” is just too soft. I also like watching Bill’s face whenever a rap song starts up. I know what’s coming, but it’s always hilarious. I’d never say that the Sulimay’s trio is offering insightful commentary, but they’re a lot of fun to watch.

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About 15 years ago, I started reading a comic called Preacher. It was written by British upstart Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon, fresh off their successful run on Hellblazer. (Starring the real John Constantine. The one who lives in London and looks nothing like Keanu Reeves.) Preacher was the story of Jesse Custer, a priest on a literal search for God, and the trail of corpses he leaves in his wake.

It was, at the time, more shocking than anything I’d ever read. One of the main characters was a teenager named Arseface – he’d tried to kill himself with a shotgun, emulating Kurt Cobain, but ended up surviving, his face a twisted ruin. And Arseface was played for laughs. It also featured sadomasochistic serial killers, child rapists, an inbred descendant of Jesus, and in later issues, a guy who has sex with raw meat. It was kind of awesome, especially for a 19-year-old.

Fast forward to 2009, and Preacher seems oddly tame. Garth Ennis has gone on to write blistering runs on a few great comics, and he’s about halfway through his current opus, The Boys. But where Preacher balanced its sadism with real character moments and a sense of hope, The Boys is just pure nihilism. It’s about a team of people who kill superheroes for fun and profit, and every issue, there’s a new attempt at dropping your jaw, whether it be through sex or violence. In just about every way, The Boys ups the ante from Preacher, and yet I find myself less engaged with it. All the swearing and masochism leaves me bored, to tell you the truth.

I think that’s a sign of just how desensitized we’ve become as a culture. Preacher drew protests in its day, people complaining that the content was just too shocking. While DC Comics did drop The Boys, forcing Ennis and artist Darrick Robertson to take it to Dynamite Entertainment with issue seven, there hasn’t been a single peep about it since. (Issue 30 just came out.) In every conceivable way, The Boys is more depraved, more corrosive than Preacher, but no one seems to care. Its lurid sexuality and ultraviolence have been met with yawns across the board.

So what do you do if your entire career so far has been built on shock tactics? How to you stun an unstunnable world? That was the question facing both Eminem and Marilyn Manson as they released their comeback records, one week apart, last month. For Eminem, it’s been five long years since his last album, and even longer since his last good one. And for Manson, well, he hasn’t been culturally relevant at all this decade, and his music has certainly suffered for it – he’s hoping that welcoming bassist Twiggy Ramirez back into the fold will reinvigorate his career.

The similarities don’t end there. Both Eminem and Manson reached their high-water marks amid a firestorm of controversy. The last genuinely shocking moment in music, as far as I’m concerned, was “Stan,” the tour de force single from 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP. Framed as a letter from an obsessed fan, “Stan” showed that Mathers has a firm grasp on his social responsibility as an artist, and it put the blood-soaked adventures of his slippery alter-ego, Slim Shady, into chilling new perspectives. For his first two albums, Eminem trafficked in complex social satire that blurred lines and pushed buttons, and “Stan” made it clear that it was all on purpose.

Manson’s most popular records form a trilogy – 1996’s Antichrist Superstar, 1998’s Mechanical Animals, and 2000’s Holy Wood. Together they tell the tale of a neglected, hated young man who grew up to become a satanic killer, and finally, to take over the world. It was Alice Cooper’s horror movie imagery mixed with David Bowie’s theatrical fantasy, and it’s little wonder the miserable misfit kids of the time identified with it. It’s been 10 years since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine High School, and many pointed fingers at Manson (along with other acts the pair listened to) in the aftermath of the tragedy.

That’s a horrible way to attain cultural relevance, but that’s where Manson (known without the face paint as Brian Warner) found himself. But he took on the criticisms, and used the spotlight as an opportunity to talk about the real causes of violence, for which I applaud him. But I think once Warner showed himself as the intelligent, reasonable guy he is, it became much more difficult for anyone to take his on-stage alter-ego seriously. That, coupled with a steady decline in the quality of his music, led to a decade of wilderness-wandering for Marilyn Manson.

A similar thing happened to Marshall Mathers, who, on 2002’s The Eminem Show, dropped the Slim Shady antics and bared his soul. For the first time, he rapped seriously about his place in pop culture, his relationship with his ex-wife Kim, and his genuine love for his daughter Hailie. It was as if he had stepped away from Slim Shady forever, growing up and facing the world as himself.

All of which made the juvenile, puerile, ridiculously bad Encore, released two years later, all the more unforgivable. Since then, Mathers has been invisible, dropping off the pop cultural radar for five years. Turns out, he’s struggled with drug addiction in that time – he made some music, but scrapped it all after sobering up. But now he’s back with two albums – Relapse, his fifth, is the first of a matched set, and its twin will be out later this year.

The initial similarities between Relapse and The High End of Low, Manson’s seventh, are striking. Addiction is at the center of both – Manson and Eminem both begin their albums hooked on pills and covered in blood. However, while Eminem’s “3 A.M.” is clearly meant as a return to his horror-core play-acting (“Wake up naked at McDonald’s with blood all over me, dead bodies behind the counter, shit, I guess I must have blacked out again…”), Manson’s “Devour” begs to be taken seriously, its slow crawl and oh-so-sinister tone leading to the hook line: “I can’t sleep until I devour you…”

From there, though, Mathers’ album only goes up, while Manson’s goes straight down. The High End of Low is, without a doubt, the worst record he’s ever made – turgid, slow, overlong, and borderline unlistenable in places. Manson’s greatest achievement over the past 10 years is somehow avoiding becoming a Danzig-like parody of himself, but this record comes dangerously close, and does not bode well for the future of this once-frightening songwriter.

Like Mathers, Manson has upped the shock value on his album, which for him means saying “fuck” a lot and pretending that it’s sexy to kill people. The lead single from this record is called “Arma-goddamn-motherfucking-geddon,” and aside from the title phrase, the chorus features shouts of “Eat! Fuck! Kill!” There’s a song here called “Pretty as a Swastika.” There’s another called “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies.” There’s a line in “Blank and White” that is basically Manson by numbers: “I want to celebrate, I want to sell you hate, today’s the day you’re gonna fucking die.”

Are you yawning yet? Nothing about this record is even remotely shocking. It’s just tired and weak. Granted, this is the sort of thing Manson’s been doing all along, but it was more digestible when it was accompanied by explosive gothic-industrial music. Not so The High End of Low, which takes the mid-tempo grind of 2007’s Eat Me Drink Me and turns it down a notch or two. Only four of these 15 songs rise above the slow muck. The rest are drowned in melodramatic melancholy, undoubtedly a stab at maturity that doesn’t suit him or his flailing, noteless voice.

The man’s entitled to be depressed and morose, but he does so in such flat, uninspiring ways that the record simply bores. Take “Running to the Edge of the World,” a six-minute acoustic-strum power ballad that could have come from Bret Michaels, if Michaels ever ruminated on the eternal nature of dissatisfaction. That’s followed by “Movies,” the biggest waste of time in Manson’s catalog. It’s nine minutes long, and out of ideas by minute two – the final two-thirds of this song just blunders along, repeating its one slow note as Manson wails about how every time he kills you, he’s really just killing himself. Really.

Buried at track 12 is the one moment of glorious fist-pumping satirical joy here. It’s called “We’re From America,” and while it’s a bit on the nose, it still bites: “We don’t like to kill our unborn, we need them to grow up and fight our wars,” Manson shouts, before proclaiming that America is “where Jesus was born.” The riff is repetitive, but it has an energy everything else here lacks. And three minutes later, it’s over, and Manson ends the album with three more soggy ballads.

The failure of The High End of Low has nothing to do with how “shocking” it all is, or isn’t. It’s just pretty obvious that Manson is tired of his persona. The music just sounds exhausted, the lyrics recycled, the vulgarities rote. On some level, Brian Warner has to know how silly this all is, and how ineffective. He’s a smart guy who has made a dumb, dreary record, and I hope he takes it as a sign that this Marilyn Manson idea has pretty much run its course.

Say what you want about Relapse, but it’s never boring. Eminem didn’t gain his reputation just because of his skin color – he’s a furious, dizzying rapper, and his skills are back in fine form here. When he’s on fire, Mathers can spit a tale like no other, and his gift for internal rhyme structures has rarely been better than it is here. His new lyrics have seemingly energized Dr. Dre, who produces – his beats are frequently amazing on Relapse, a far cry from the mediocrity he turned out on Encore. Five years away has done wonders for both rapper and beatmeister.

With Eminem, it’s never been a question of talent, but of how that talent is used. I’ve dropped this analogy before, but his work reminds me of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation – astonishing skill used in abhorrent ways. Yes, once again Mathers relapses into Slim Shady, and we get several murder fantasies and celebrity slasher flicks set to music. These are the moments when Relapse sounds almost as worn out as Manson’s album – no matter how dazzling the wordplay on “Same Song and Dance,” it’s still a song about brutally murdering Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

But when Mathers drops the act and turns the spotlight on himself, Relapse is riveting. About half of the record concerns Mathers’ drug problems, and just where the hell he’s been for the last half-decade, and these tales are harrowing. On “My Mom,” he aims at a frequent target, his mother Debbie, but draws a straight line between the drugs he was fed as a child and his current addictions. “Insane” is a terrifyingly funny account of the sexual abuse Mathers’ stepfather inflicted upon him, with a third verse delivered almost entirely in a chilling little kid voice.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the album is so inconsistent. “Bagpipes from Baghdad” is not a political statement, but an incongruous attack on Mariah Carey. “Must Be the Ganja” fits in with the drug abuse theme, but is remarkably lame, as is “We Made You,” the token Slim-Shady-hates-celebrities tune. And Eminem doesn’t need guest stars to elevate his material – in fact, they usually bring it down, as both Dre and 50 Cent do on “Crack a Bottle.” These songs only serve to make dynamite numbers like “Medicine Ball” seem more exciting.

Relapse does get a late-album shot in the arm from one of the most honest songs Mathers has ever penned, the downright pretty and inspiring “Beautiful.” The track samples Queen and Paul Rodgers’ version of “Reaching Out,” and finds Mathers in a reflective mood, rapping about his emotional vulnerability. It is here that he confides that he nearly gave up on his talent, so heavy was the weight of his depression over the last five years. This is Marshall Mathers, naked to his soul.

But here’s the thing. The very presence of songs like “Beautiful” and “Déjà Vu” call into question the violent, misogynistic, homophobic fantasies that pepper this album. In fact, they make those fantasies inexcusable. “Stay Wide Awake” is a particularly gruesome tale of rape and murder, including a passage in which Slim Shady forcibly impregnates a woman, watches as she births triplets, and kills the babies with cyanide. This is all delivered with devilish glee, of course, because Shady is “only playin’.”

Now, let’s be clear. None of this is shocking to me. It’s just lamentable. I understand that Slim Shady is a character, the dark side of Mathers’ id. I get it. But the piercing emotional insight of some of Relapse raises the question of why Mathers continues to play him. At one point on the album, Shady is describing a forced home abortion. In another, he’s delivering an entire verse as the late Christopher Reeve, talking through his voice box and challenging Eminem to a breakdancing contest. And seconds later, Mathers is discussing his genuine pain in the most heartfelt way he’s ever attempted.

The inconsistency is more than jarring, it’s sad. For half of this album, we get the real Marshall Mathers, and his work is gripping. But for the other half, we get Slim Shady, relying on the same old celeb-baiting and graphic violence he’s always given us. I would think even Mathers would be tired of his alter-ego by now, and the thinner the joke wears, the more repugnant it becomes. I wish Relapse weren’t such a good record. As it is, it stands as another example of Mathers’ phenomenal talent, and the unfortunate use he’s made of it.

Both of these albums take great pains to shock and disturb, and I expect Eminem’s Relapse 2 will follow the same path. But as society moves on, and it becomes harder and harder to shock us, court jesters like Mathers and Manson will hopefully have no choice but to go the other direction, and offer us real substance. There are moments on Relapse when I hear this happening, when its author is taking the biggest risk of all – being real. And that is more shocking than anything his alter ego (or Brian Warner’s) can devise.

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So I will be 35 on Friday. Not sure yet if I will be writing a column for next week, but I probably will – there’s a lot of good stuff coming out, including Dave Matthews Band’s tribute to the late LeRoi Moore, and new ones from Elvis Costello, the Eels, Sonic Youth, Rhett Miller and Trey Anastasio. Plus there’s that column on awesome gimmicks, coming up very soon.

See you in line Tuesday morning.