There’s nothing as lame or pitiful as contrived outrage, and no band around fails to shock with as much concerted effort as Marilyn Manson. The Ft. Lauderdale-rooted onetime protégés of Trent Reznor (who signed the garishly named and appointed quintet to his label and co-produced their early records) bring a serial-killer trading card mentality to a sound that drops an Alice Cooper olive into a vat-sized White Zombie cocktail. Presenting themselves as depravity-loving social commentators and bad-natured comedians, Marilyn Manson step into the slimy sonic cauldron left unattended lately by the Butthole Surfers. They want so desperately to seem like jerks that maybe it’s best to let them have their way.
The moronic mad-libbing of the group’s murder-is-fun culture icon names (like the namesake vocalist and his male compatriots Madonna Wayne Gacy, Daisy Berkowitz and Twiggy Ramirez) is only one facet for which the sprites of originality seem not to have been present; the profanity-laced lyrics are equally obvious and dumb. The virile, mid-speed rock has Reznor’s sonic footprints (i.e., things he picked up from Ministry and Foetus) all over it, but the effect inverts Nine Inch Nails’ intimate malevolence writ large; the main distinctions of Marilyn Manson’s music are largely extraneous — haunted-house sound effects and annoying samples. (Portrait of an American Family ends with seven minutes of a faintly ringing phone.) While some of the songs move around with enthusiastic ferocity and there are glimmers of wit (Arthur Brown’s “I bring you” shout from “Fire” that kicks off “Lunchbox,” Manson’s Elmer Fudd voice on “My Monkey”) the album’s self-conscious gimmickry and rote vulgarity take the fun out.
Wielding the same big shtick on Smells Like Children, the band works overtime like Santa’s baddest elves in a valiant effort to offend somebody-anybody. Trundling through industrial noise, sample manipulation and various effects in “Diary of a Dope Fiend” and “Scabs, Guns and Peanut Butter,” the album goes outside of songdom for cut-up sex sounds (“F*** Frankie”) and “May Cause Discoloration of the Urine or Feces,” a ridiculous but evidently serious four-minute medical phone conversation with a bewildered blood pressure patient. Not exactly the band’s second album (but not exactly not, either), the grab-bag includes a remix of the debut’s “Dope Hat” and plodding covers of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (evidently chosen for its passing reference to “abuse”), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (shock-rock’s very own “Johnny B. Goode”) and a charged rendition of Patti Smith’s “Rock’n’Roll Nigger” that reveal nothing beyond Manson’s transparent desperation to impress rock’s impressionables.