Nine Inch Nails
irst things first: I liked The Fragile. Nine Inch Nails’ last album, from 1999, was gently trashed by most critics, chiefly because it a) wasn’t The Downward Spiral2, and b) was a bit self-indulgent in spots; Trent Reznor’s pretty little instrumentals took a particular beating. To my ears, The Fragile was the sound of an artist sorting it all out, in public, and certainly interesting if not awe-inspiring. That’s not to say, however, that NIN’s much-awaited new With Teeth isn’t better, because it most certainly is. Reznor sounds re-focused again, his lasers set on “stun.” I don’t doubt that at least part of this is attributable to his being clean and sober—but don’t be fooled. This is by no means a kinder, gentler Reznor. He’s out for blood again.
This salvo was launched with the ground-to-air missile attack of With Teeth’s first single, “The Hand That Feeds.” Yeah, it’s definitely DOR (dance-oriented rock), but whom better than Reznor, who knows exactly how to do it (cf. “Head Like A Hole”). Even if they bought some balls, the Killers couldn’t come close to the propulsive crunch of this. It’s the perfect “Trent’s back” single, too: simultaneously contemporary without sounding trendy—this won’t be mistaken for anything but an NIN single. “Only” is even more DOR (DOR-ier?), with some very new wave drumming from Dave Grohl (who drums on the entire album—more on him in a minute) and some very “totally ‘80s” synths (they remind me of Yazoo, actually).
Thank God other people ask Dave Grohl to drum on their records, since he doesn’t much on his own anymore, or we wouldn’t get to appreciate what might be the foremost talent of the guy who may well be this generation’s John Bonham. He assaults his kit mercilessly throughout most of With Teeth, particularly on “The Collector” (listen to the brutal, constant pounding that opens the song). This album wouldn’t scale the heights it does without Grohl’s presence on it (it helps that Reznor punched the drums up in the mix, too). He’s loud and crisp and, to these ears at least, very distinctive.
The drums are crucial to With Teeth, because this is a much more aggressive album than The Fragile. Even on a song such as the album’s title track, which moves at a slow tempo, the passion of the Reznor is ever-present: check out the way he spits out the words “with teeth,” sounding for all the world like he’s suppressing his own vomit (it comes out more as “with-ah teeth-ah,” but in a clenched-teeth sense as opposed to a Mark E. Smith sense). “With Teeth” is followed by the aforementioned “Only,” whose first verse seems to say that Trent’s been listening to LCD Soundsystem, as Trent speak-sings it like the smooth operator he’s capable of being (but rarely expresses himself as). It’s got an LCD-squelchy bass line, too. A bit of pisstaking, anyone? By the second verse, however, it’s crystal clear this is an NIN song: “No I’m from where / I am not supposed to be / And I can see things / I knew I really shouldn’t see.” Better still is this passage from “Getting Smaller”:
I think I’m losing my grip
But I can still make a fist
You know I still got my one good arm
That I can beat, oh I can beat myself up with
That’s classic Reznor, and God bless him for it. Robert Smith can still mine that territory, but in not quite such an aggro manner. Reznor owns it, names it, and claims it.
Songs such as “You Know What You Are?” and “All the Love In the World” continue in that vein, but in very different manners. Opener “All the Love” is fairly subdued, as mournful as Reznor gets (the chorus asks “why do you get all the love in the world?”), while “You Know” is all naked NIN-isms, with a “don’t you fucking know what you are?” chorus and slash-and-burn napalm cocktail musical attack; the latter will assuredly become a very fast live favorite. There’s been rumbling on the internet by some NIN fans that this album is somehow a disappointment, which leads me to question, are they listening? While With Teeth would’ve been a natural sequel to The Downward Spiral, Reznor couldn’t have made it until now. Current yet sounding potentially classic already (this one improves with each listen), Reznor forces himself further into the mainstream with With Teeth—but on his own terms. The words “triumphant return” are apt.