|BELIEVE THE HYPE? NINE INCH NAILS' WITH TEETH.|
Some friends, you just can't help.
You see them out at parties or you grab a drink with them after work, and even though it's been several months since you saw them, it's still the same old nonsense. They're still not over their ex from a year ago. They're still bitter about that promotion they didn't get.
They're still harping about their team who coulda gone all the way last season if their son-of-a-bitch coach had just made better calls. It's always good to see them, but it's getting late, and you really should be getting home.
Despite recent interviews to the contrary, Trent Reznor hasn't changed much since you first met him and his band, Nine Inch Nails. Maybe it was in the late '80s with Pretty Hate Machine -- more likely, it was with his '94 smash The Downward Spiral. To promote his new record, With Teeth, Reznor has discussed his addictions and recovery, his newfound optimism and
confidence. This is heartwarming stuff, and I hope his depression is manageable now. But, on record, it's the same old same old: He's still very angry. And it's getting tiring.
In the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide and grunge's uncertain future, The Downward Spiral was just the bleak cure some of us needed. God is dead, we are all insects, love is impossible but ugly sex is conceivable, self-inflicted pain will remind you that you're alive -- all done with a universal anonymity for which anybody could sign up. Some of Spiral's shock has eroded in the 11 years since, but its musical complexity remains unquestioned. Except for the epochal "Closer," where Reznor's lyrical darkness matched his arrangement's seductive lewdness, much of Spiral was a marvel of sonics alone. Trent's bilious name-calling, vows of revenge, and cheap martyrdom are no deeper than those of any car-less teenager, but his colossal production crystallized his complaints. Even now, the album's industrial miasma is the musical personification of angst; it evokes darkness, misery, jagged edges, acne, unadulterated terror. There was something undeniably masculine about its aggression and its assumption that approaching a woman seemed to be a much scarier proposition than taking your own life.
The Fragile, from '99, actually offered a more mature exploration of Spiral's mistrust and self-doubt, but it lacked hits and did so over two long discs. If you dig it out of storage, you'll be surprised how much better it sounds than you recall. But it did create a certain industry questioning about Reznor's long-term chances. So now Reznor brings us With Teeth, his stab at continued relevancy. I hadn't seen him in a while, we used to be close, so I decided to accept his invitation to get together.
He's still doing well, I suppose. Though maybe self-consciously tighter than The Fragile to ensure no one would confuse it with a sequel, With Teeth relies less on the spook-show theatrics than Spiral. The songs are hookier, the soundscapes are at a minimum. But the guy still sequences his records like he expects you to listen to the whole thing in one sitting -- bless his heart. With Teeth tells a more mature story than the artful temper tantrums of Spiral did, but his entropy rarely feels riveting anymore. "I believe I can see the future," he too-accurately warns in "Every Day Is Exactly the Same," "'cuz I repeat the same routine." Yeah, I noticed -- also noticed the song before it is called "Love Is Not Enough." Oh god, he's still going on about that?
On most tracks, the bleating guitars and dramatic keyboards are never less than gripping; you never have a problem enjoying the sounds of With Teeth. You just have to tune out the vocals -- or mouth along without considering how remedial the lyrics are. Because The Fragile so heavily emphasized its sonic rollercoaster of noises and melodies, you could forgive its thematic paucity. (If his label had allowed it, I wonder if he would have just preferred doing it all instrumental.) But With Teeth's similar imbalance makes Reznor seem like just another disgruntled nerd more in love with his cool studio gadgets than with real humans. Plus, he never displays much of a sense of humor -- even Joy Division had a sort of ironic, deadpan wit about their gloom. Aside from "Closer," he also never seems very sexy, either. The guy's just a big mope, and as he gets older, you wonder if he's putting you on with his whole rant. Or is he really just this petty and bitter -- and, if so, why can't he just, you know, get over it?
But as the night went on, I remembered why I liked him so much in the first place. When he locks into a groove -- the nimble low-end funk of "Only," the danceable riff frenzy of "The Hand That Feeds" -- he adrenalizes rage more powerfully than all the nu-metal bands darkening our doors currently. And the finale -- "Right Where It Belongs," an unspoken successor to Spiral's mournful "Hurt" -- again demonstrates his skill at weaving together different aural tapestries to make for an engrossing experience. (I love how the crowd roar comes out of nowhere near the end, suggesting a community of likeminded outsiders just waiting to unite.)
In these moments, I reminisce about my younger years -- confused, angry, scared. For anyone in the throes of adolescence, Nine Inch Nails' misery feels genuine, a messy bluster of acting out and demanding satisfaction. As you get older, music still guides your emotional reactions, but such unfiltered anger usually subsides, replaced by contentment, acceptance or thoughtfulness. I've changed, but Nine Inch Nails hasn't -- as for Trent's personal growth, we can only speculate. But if With Teeth means to channel your wrath, it left me oddly relieved. I was glad I couldn't identify with Reznor's constant gripes -- maybe I'm more well-adjusted than I realized. I know success doesn't guarantee happiness, but surely it must alter your perspective a little. Think of your world back in '94. Now think of it today. You're telling me you would make virtually the exact same album three times during that span?
I felt bad about it, but I lied and told him I needed to take off. He
seemed a little bummed, but he thanked me for hanging out. He's a great
guy, and I was sincerely happy to see him. But there's only so much of
him you can take at one time, you know? Friends come in and out of our
lives all the time. All we can do is wish them well.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.