The Omega and the Alpha: MECHANICAL ANIMALS
by and (c) Paula O'Keefe (==angelynx==)
"This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"
--initially posted 9/29/98, pretty-much-final revision 11/2/98
Nota Bene: All opinions expressed (except specific and attributed quotes) are those of the author, and are, as always,
offered subject to the possibility that she's dead wrong.
Or is it about absolute power and the descent from it, and what you lose and gain?
Is it about the division and healing of a soul?
This is your trip, so it's for you to decide what it is to you.
Primary of course is its immediate predecessor, Antichrist Superstar, the document of how its narrator came to the state in which he finds himself. Manson has said that Mechanical Animals is both part two of ACS and the direct result of it, and that's more than clear. As prophesied, the apocalypse of ACS destroyed not the outside "real" world but the inner, comprehended world of its listeners, and none more completely than the world of the one who had dreamed and presented it. MA's worldview is like waking up from a suicide attempt: the painfully clear eye of one who, having ended the world, didn't expect to have to deal with it again on Monday morning, or with the ruin he'd made of himself in the process.
The secondary context is its influences and ancestry. If this is - and it is - the document of how our narrator regained his emotions and his innocence, then it stands to reason that it will echo the sound of the music he loved as a child, and so it does. This should be no point for condemnation or cries of plagiarism. The reason for it is clear and the result offers both considerable charm and a few clues. (We'll get to that presently.)
The third one is the City of Los Angeles. It can't be discounted that Manson wrote this entire set of lyrics while living in the environs of a city well known for its capacity to destroy human life. If he seems to be seeing more dybbuks and zombies around him than he used to, it might be partly because he chose - or had the misfortune - to conduct his soul-awakening in a place that routinely creates them. Manson himself observed that L.A. "can consume you if your will isn't strong enough". Surely some of the Mechanical Animals he's been observing are people thus consumed.
(Incidentally, the common nickname "City of Angels" is a slight misnomer. "Los Angeles" does indeed mean "the angels", but its full name (or most of it) is La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles - "The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels". In other words it's dedicated to Madonna Mary, not to her subjects. "Mary, Mary, to die this young is oh so scary...")
But the final result is, as it should be, more than the sum of its parts. For all its bitter sadness MA offers some heartening signs of hope ("it's better to die with love than without it" is a pretty faint sign of hope, granted, but it's still better than none) and of the tentative opening of our narrator's once-ironclad heart. It has been, after all, the long hard road out of hell; at this distance from hell, maybe there's time for a look around.
("I am the Alien and the Omega, the beginning and the end"...
O is for Omega, the last, and A is for Alpha, the first. A is for Alien. A is for Angel.)
"Great Big White World" [A] -- "In space the stars are no nearer..." Deep and wide as night sky and echoing with a sorrow so keen it's almost grief. This striking opening track introduces MA's central image, a space traveller floating above the earth - unconnected, dissociated, "not attached to your world". It's "your" world and not his, because the world he sees before him is a barren dystopia, a place drained of color and warmth, from which everything worthwhile is lost. "We used to love ourselves," he mourns, "we used to love one another." No more.
Our narrator tries to piece together the fractured memories of his journey, but remembers only fragments: Hell was cold, full of shattered vases and roses with cutting thorns. A long, hard road, yea verily. "Mother Mary/miscarry/but we pray just like insects" -- one sees the praying mantis with its grey-alien-like head and eyes. The pose some fanciful entomologist thought reverent is only anticipation of passing prey; our prayers have become as grasping and distant from spirit as those we hated, addressed to nothing. (Finally a true praying-mantis epiphany.) We thought we'd passed out of this world forever, but we've returned to find it even bleaker than before, and we have nothing but mundane damage ("all my stitches itch/my prescription's low") and lonely misery to show for it. And the painkillers are running out...The decision to open with this song is brilliant. Its cinematic beauty, its elegiac sadness, our narrator's fall from grace - nothing could have made it clearer that Things Are Different This Time.
(This will also be a good moment to pay tribute to Madonna Wayne Gacy, whose keyboards are the heart of this track and many others. His work on this track fills its space with a cold fluorescent glow, and his style range across the record is thoroughly impressive and technically superb, always exactly what's right. Pogo is beyond question the instrumental star of this album.)
--Although others have drawn the obvious line to Bowie's "Space Oddity" and its iconic Major Tom, the memory this one rings for me is "Moonage Daydream". They share an alien landscape, beautiful yet utterly inimical to human life, and a stark, wailing guitar solo, this one shrill as an ambulance siren, set against a majestic organ score that slowly dwindles to silence. (--what a stunner this one is - the sound is so new to them! Most of us heard it for the first time in line at the Virgin Megastore, and you could literally see jaws drop from end to end.)
"The Dope Show" [O] - Theme #2. The first song most of us heard from the LP, and its very first word is a stuttered "d-d-d-drugs"....we should've known. This one's a quick course in learning to stay alive in the shark tank: "To swim you have to swallow", and you know that covers a wide range of abuses. Snide and sassy with a sexy slink and a huge Gary Glitter stomp, it sets up the internal tension of all the Omega tracks. Namely, they're such delectable rock'n'roll fun that you hafta love them - everyone went bonkers over that red sequined outfit with the big diamond-edged boots - but so bitter and full of self-loathing that you wonder why you do. (Gonna be some real conflicted hearts on the barricade this time out.) TDS is a quick sketch of all the bad parts: momentary celebrity, loveless sex, empty glamour and becoming a commodity: "we love your face, we'd really like to sell you". (Apparently that phase in late '97 when your local newsstand offered a dozen Manson covers per month freaked him as badly as it did us.) --Multiple personalities are typically generated as a reaction to extreme stress, manifesting another self which can handle things that you think "you" can't. Here Omega is a classic example, brassy and cynical, invulnerable, striding headlong into a psychic shitstorm that would cripple the defenseless Alien and brushing off fawning celebrities with a careless shrug of the shoulder. He plays the game - he has to, his alter ego can't - and he plays it well, but learning how has chewed up his soul.
NB: "We're all stars now, in the dope show" may sound self-congratulatory, but back in the day a "dope show" was a cautionary roadshow in the "Reefer Madness" vein - intended to illustrate the evil consequences of indulgence - and a star of the dope show would probably have been a deformed baby or a shattered junkie too far gone to care about being put on display. Context, kids, context.
--Likeliest Bowie cue: "Cracked Actor".
"Mechanical Animals" [A] - Big, sweeping sound with exquisite keyboards and guitar that sails from acoustic strum to metal bombastic, but its tone is mournful and final, full of rejection and lost souls. Paradoxically it contains some of Manson's cleverest neologisms since POAAF: "neurophobic", "manniqueen", and the wonderful "phenobarbidoll".
--Who is the "you" in this song? Is this our first meeting with the elusive Coma White? Manson has handed out clues to this shade without pinning anything down: sometimes it's "a girl I called Comawhite" but "sometimes Coma White is you", and sometimes Coma White seems to be anything on which one becomes dependent, for any reason. This song's CW manifestation is Manson's "mechanical bride", "as hollow as the O in God" with "the face of a dead star" - which calls up both images of long-gone film queens and supernovas, burnt-out lights in space. (Perhaps one thinks of both things while hovering over Hollywood.) Manson, however, dismisses it: "I'm never gonna be the one for you/I'm never gonna save the world from you." From you? who and what is this spectre?
"This isn't me, I'm not mechanical," he sings plaintively, "I'm just a boy playing the suicide king."
---Extended digression here. Once there was a kid of fifteen named Richard Kuntz, who shot himself, and ACS was found in his CD player. His father starred in a Senate hearing at which he condemned MM as an agent of mass teen death ("our children are dying in ones and twos from this man's music", he said) and called ACS a hand grenade that had gone off in his son's mind. One irresistibly thinks of this when Manson characterizes himself as a "hand grenade that never stopped exploding" and makes this suicide reference. The phrase pivots on the word "playing": is he "playing the suicide king" as an acting role, or as a card that he deals into the game, an influence that will pertain from here on out? The King of Hearts is called in cardplayers' slang the suicide king, because his design makes him appear to be driving his sword into his own head; the stylized icon appearing alongside this song in the lyric booklet underlines the reference (thank you for this clue, eon sol). At the point in the booklet where this song and icon appear, the Alien is the upright side, Omega the inverted one. My feeling here is that it's the Alien who claims the suicide king as a role - which he disavows; he only knows he's going to die, but Omega wants to. (Perhaps this is deliberate? perhaps he's acknowledging Omega himself as a role?...)
I think in one sense the song is addressed to his own false image, himself as he's been portrayed by people like Dad Kuntz - King Suicide, the Threat, the black-clad Satanist whose evil charisma lures kids over the edge. (The reference to "the face of a dead star" comes back to mind, as Manson has called himself just that in a website post.) He rejects this image as the media (phenobarbi)doll it became and says he's no longer interested in how it relates to the world, because "this isn't me". In another sense, I have a strange feeling --just a hunch, I can't define it -- that he's speaking for and as those kids, defending them and himself; that he's saying "we're just kids playing this person's record - this 'Suicide King' - but we're not under his control". They weren't mechanical animals, they weren't acting under his sway or anyone's, and he grieves their (or his own?) lost chance to live --"they'll never be good to you, bad to you/they'll never be anything, anything at all". ..
---NB: "The Mechanical Bride" is the title of a 1951 book (his first) by the renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the coiner of the phrases "global village" and "the medium is the message" and an extremely influential thinker regarding the relationship between humankind and its media. McLuhan's prominent theme - that the media have become extensions of the human nervous system - is quite pertinent to this CD and I'd be surprised to find Manson had not read any of his books during its creation.
"Rock Is Dead" [O] -- Judas-bleeding-Priest what a semiotic nightmare THIS is, the audio equivalent of saying "everything I say is a lie"; a flashy, kickass racket of a rock and roll song called "Rock Is Dead"! It's even got a "lalala" chorus! Madre! --Manson says he wrote it partly to counter comments about rock's demise from those around him, so it's got that "stand back kids and see how it's done" swagger; yet it drips acid scorn for tabloid mentality and the marketability of the masses, and seems disgusted with the very label "rock" itself. (Check the little "A-ha!" laugh after "rock" and "shock" in the first two choruses!) Guitars kick and stomp, synths trill, are we having fun or is the whole fkn' thing sarcastic?
--On another level it's a shot at his, uhm, less secular critics - "shock is all in your head, so fuck all your protests and put 'em to bed!" he spits. "God is in the TV" (or if you're me, you hear "Goddess in the TV") which seems to pick up his recent interview theme that spirituality is best found anywhere but in religion, and that their God is a commercial creation like everything else. "Build a new God to medicate [cripes, in this world even God's on drugs] and to ape, sell us ersatz dressed up and real fake." (Which is especially funny in a song which reminds me of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus".) --Omega at his best, all sexy confidence and tough star-quality, aiming his anger outside himself for the first and only time. C'mon, you do love him, right?...
...but damn, the Omega tracks are hard to get a grip on; they have so much color and energy yet ultimately seem to be just a light show, dazzling but empty and cynical. This one's the toughest for me.
I love its look, its presence, and its big gorgeous noise, but I can't get over the spat-out
"we're so full of hope and so full of shit" ....
--The tenderness and poignancy of this lyric are revelatory coming from Manson, as are his singing and the warm, delicate guitar work. "Sometimes we walk like we were shot through our heads, my love; we write our song in space like we're already dead and gone." The first song to come to grips with the album's central question: why do we deliberately deaden our emotions? Why don't we feel? It's the first time he's even felt capable of calling someone "my love" in a lyric yet he still knows that they're both walking dead, dysfunctional automatons. The stronger becomes his sense of regaining his feelings and his soul, the stronger becomes his terror of losing them again, or of having already lost them beyond recall, of being or becoming a machine like those he perceives around him. He encapsulates the fear in an intricate, chilling pun - "the nervous system's down" - tying in one tight little knot his sense of collapse and his fear that his collapse is more cybernetic than organic.
(NB: The fear that those around you are not true humans but zombies or machines is typical of dissociative disorder, specifically of depersonalization disorder, which also lends a sense of detachment and unreality. It's commonest in those who are already suffering through substance abuse or withdrawal, pain, fatigue, or severe stress...or combinations thereof.)
...go on to Part 2.