'Teeth' and Nails
NIN's Trent Reznor puts some pop polish on his
Nine Inch Nails-With Teeth (Interscope)
About halfway through With Teeth, Nine Inch
Nails' return after a five-year hiatus, the most remarkable thing happens:
Trent Reznor flashes a hint of humor. It's so fleeting that it's fairly easy to
miss but it's there. "Only" stars as an homage to old-school
synth-pop--its gyrating pulse brings mind to vintage Gary Numan singles--and
leads into a Reznor recitation: "I'm becoming less defined as days go
by... Kinda drifting into abstract in terms of how I see myself."
Typical Reznor self-flagellation, to be sure.
But his deadpan, spoken-word delivery is so straight-faced that it has to be a
mild put-on, right? By the song's conclusion, he's reverted to his standard
throat-shredding shriek, the emotional aaargh of industrial music. But for a
glimmer, Reznor sounds as if he maybe tweaking his image as pop's eternally
tormented dark lord, the Hamlet of Goth.
While the last thing from a Chris Rock routine,
"Only" is one telling sign that Reznor has learned, in his
relentlessly bleak way, to lighten up a little. Ever since 1994's The Downward
Spiral upgraded industrial music with gleaming textures and more intricate song
structures (even its creepy, silent-age videos were spectacularly above the
norm), Reznor has bedeviled by where to go next. His creative anguished spilled
out onto 1999's The Fragile, two discs of sonically majestic yet emotionally
and musically inert lashings-out that verged on self-parody. He'd screamed
himself into a corner.
Reznor hasn't exactly mellowed on With Teeth:
In lyrics like "I think I used to have a purpose/And then again that might
have been a dream," we still feel his pain and wish he's just increase his
therapy session and get over it. But both he and his music sound more
invigorated than at any time since Spiral. With guest drummer Dave Grohl
pounding away like an 8-year-old on a sugar rush, tracks like "The
Collector" and "Getting Smaller" amp up the heavy-riffage
guitars and kinetic rhythms but never deteriorate into chaos. Reznor's sense of
melody and production (sneaking piano arpeggios into "The Collector"
and the razor-edge title song) compensate for the stunted growth in his words.
With the notable exception of "Only" which might score him a few
brownie points with the retro-post-punk crowd, Reznor makes no virtual
concessions to the rock from the middle of this decade. In doing so, of course,
he risks irrelevance. Like techno, industrial was a pure product of its era:
It's computerized, push-button textures and rhythms and pent-up,
children-of-divorce-culture emotions could have only erupted in the 90s. The
bodies in Reznor's wake (anyone seen Ministry--anyone?) merely underscore the
But Reznor has always been one canny king of
pain. He's wise to wait a minimum of five years between albums; the absence
only adds to his mystique. and after all this time, he remains singular in his
genre. He's nearly alone in his ability to make traditional rock instruments
sound like anything but: Are those guitars or British police sirens on what may
be his Iraq-war commentary "The Hand That Feeds"? And a newfound expansiveness
in the glorious epic "All the Love in the World", which shifts
effortlessly from drum-and-bass tranquility to acid-house beats and even finds
Reznor singing in something resembling a romantic croon.
At times, Reznor comes uncomfortably close to
sounding like a teeth-gnashing version of Lenny Kravitz, and he really needs to
get past the kind of songs on which he screams "there is no f---in
you!/There is only me!" as if the head cheerleader spurned him again. But
Reznor seems to have finally grasped that listening to a NIN album should not
be as torturous as whatever artistic agony went into its creation.