Posted by: Necci – Aug 07, 2010
To review a new Charles Manson album in 2010 without certain preconceptions is a difficult, and perhaps impossible, prospect. Four decades of revulsion, adoration, and every type of sociological and psychological speculation imaginable have turned Manson into a living symbol – to his detractors, an incarnation of man’s capacity for evil and ability to manipulate weaker minds; to his supporters, a representation of the manner in which society as a whole can persecute those whom they fail to understand; to his analysts, an argument for the latter half of the “nature versus nurture” debate – the extreme end result of broken homes, unsupportive foster care, and a criminal justice system bent on incarceration rather than rehabilitation; to a nation of armchair sociologists, an example of peace, love, and happiness turned askew by the diseased underbelly of American society, a poster boy for the century that Günter Grass summed up with the phrase “barbaric, mystical, bored.”
Tackling this issue of preconceptions is important when examining this album. Those who would buy the album for its perceived shock value would be interested regardless of the album’s quality, as evidenced by Manson’s earlier albums, which still retain a following regardless of their abysmal music. Those who find it distasteful to express interest in, or to offer financial support towards, the artistic endeavors of so notorious a figure are equally unlikely to consider any issue of quality when avoiding the whole thing. Even those who would affect some air of ambivalence towards the historical facet – those who claim to appreciate the album solely for aesthetic reasons, for instance – can’t fully cloak the prurience of their interest. For better or worse, if this album had been made by some previously unknown songwriter, it is difficult to imagine it would attract much attention. So while an in-depth look at Air cannot be completed without recognition of such predispositions, any attempt at purely aesthetic judgment will be predicated upon the idea that the album itself – while not unpleasant – is about as far removed from easy accessibility as its creator.
Anybody who has wasted precious moments of their lives on older Manson albums like Lie: The Love and Terror Cult will find Air a far cry from the off-key vocals, the atonal, arrhythmic guitar strumming, and the lack of a cogent lyrical approach. While Air is hardly a slickly produced recording – the details surrounding its creation are still under tight wraps – Air is leaps and bounds beyond his previous efforts.
The album is the first installation in a four-part series reflecting Manson’s ecological beliefs – to be followed with Trees, Water, and Animals in the coming months – and the lyrics roughly orbit around that central concept. The degree to which he achieves his goal, however, is not immediately apparent. His vocal delivery is anything but well-enunciated, and what is readily understandable varies widely in its content. Listeners may not be able to suppress the urge to look for lurid elements in the lyrics, and it may be impossible for some to ignore such eerily autobiographical references as “I was out on the highway with a pistol in my pocket” in “Brother Gun.” Which is not to say that such self-referential moments offer the lyrics much cohesion. “World Perspectives,” as the title suggests, attempts a summation of Manson’s worldview. He offers a halting, rambling vision of a civilization comprised of individuals who would look out solely for themselves in the face of environmental catastrophe, and the need to escape that society in order to transform it. This segues directly into “Hobo Poem,” a straight-forward depiction of the life of a Depression-era hobo. The rest of the songs alternate between the two themes and establish a pattern which may help to decipher the album’s overarching theme.
The album is characterized by this dichotomy between the natural elements on which we all rely and the individuals who choose life on society’s fringes. It is hard to discern whether Manson is suggesting that the lives of gamblers, drunks, and hobos should provide a model of nonconformity which would ultimately lead Western civilization away from its own destruction. The intimation is there, however murky the terminology. Not everybody will agree – especially those who get their news from Glenn Beck – but we are living in an age of accelerated environmental degradation which is inextricably linked with consumerist lifestyles based on envy and conformity. It may be a specious argument to insinuate, as Manson seems to do, that society’s lunatic fringe will be its savior – however, elements which may at first seem to lack cohesion attain a focus when viewed through this lens.
While the temptation to focus on lyrics and thematic elements is strong, these facets would be undermined without the developments in the music itself. Manson’s vocals have achieved a bluesy croak and his guitar playing mixes a slight jazz influence in with pastoral folksiness. The songs drift in and out of strongly defined meter, vocals and guitar dancing around one another like lovers who can finish each other’s sentences. Anyone who ever wanted to hear one of the most notorious men of the past century scat sing should be more than satisfied. The whole thing calls to mind an unhinged version of Leon Redbone, retaining only the most minute amount of control over the songs, and grasping at notes like the wino in “Gas Chamber” who, waking up in an alley, reaches immediately and frantically for a bottle. While a description like that would likely repel the vast majority of potential listeners, there are a lot of people who swear by Jandek and buy every front porch recording of backwoods preachers playing homemade tin-can guitars that labels like Mississippi Records put out – examples which, like Manson’s music, benefit heavily from an interesting back story.
And that back story will ultimately dictate much of the interest, whether positive or negative, in the album. While it may offend some people that such an album exists at all, the actual content is far-removed from anything which could reasonably be considered transgressive. Manson seems to want people to look out for each other and for the world around them, and if that seems like an incongruity coming from the man behind some of the most notorious crimes of the past hundred years, then the impetus is shifted to the listener to reconcile the various dualities inherent to the project: historical preconceptions versus present-day realities, society versus nature, creation versus destruction. Those who are able to make sense of the seemingly conflicting extremes will find a challenging yet rewarding work, an end-times message attempting to counter those who would simply fiddle as Rome burns.
By Graham Scala