Nine Inch Nails' Body Of Work Gains 'Teeth'

By Joshua Klein
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Whether you buy his Prince of Darkness guise or still think him some sort of industrial-rock poseur, there's no denying Trent Reznor's skill as a musician and songwriter. He gave the game away on his sleeper-hit debut as Nine Inch Nails, "Pretty Hate Machine," back in 1989: The liner notes paid tribute to such unexpected influences as Public Enemy and Prince even as Reznor elsewhere extolled the virtues of David Bowie, Queen, Joy Division and Adam Ant. No question, the man's a musical omnivore, and that shows in each sharp and relentless Nine Inch Nails album.

Trent Reznor with Nine Inch Nails accomplices Aaron North, Alessandro Cortini, Jeordie White and Jerome Dillon.
Trent Reznor with Nine Inch Nails accomplices Aaron North, Alessandro Cortini, Jeordie White and Jerome Dillon.
"With Teeth," the first NIN album in five years and fourth overall (every five years or so seems to be the pattern), may be Reznor's most focused and musically uniform since his debut. After all, this is a guy who had to call in veteran producer Bob Ezrin, the man behind Pink Floyd's "The Wall," just to help him make sense of 1999's sprawling but inspired double-disc outing "The Fragile." Compared to that unwieldy opus, "With Teeth" seems downright quaint in its economy -- just 13 songs and an hour of music -- and most likely intentionally so. "The Fragile" was no blockbuster, and the businessman in Reznor surely wants to reclaim lost market share.

Most of "With Teeth" sounds primed to do just that. After so many years spent airing his most personal demons, Reznor has become almost comforting in his despair, the way his whisper shifts into his trademark scream or the way his compositions build layer by layer to cacophonous crescendos. But if his lyrics remain largely self-loathing boilerplate, Reznor rarely lets the listener off easy, drawing you into his world even as the music explodes.

"All the Love in the World" begins with a pitter-patter drum program and a menacing, minor-key feel before suddenly brightening up around the halfway point, while the plodding disco of "The Hand That Feeds" gives way to a synth squiggle before self-destructing in a hail of crash-and-burn drums and guitars. With its "arms that flip-flop" line and nutty cadence, Reznor tips his hat to art-punk progenitors Pere Ubu in "Getting Smaller," just as "The Collector" and "Sunspots" recall the more unforgiving moments of Public Image Ltd.

But if there's a track that encapsulates the new, more confident (and reportedly post-rehab) Reznor, it's "Only." With its rinky-dink disco beat, it pays tribute to Gary Numan even while Reznor -- in the most offhand manner -- puts his career into stark perspective. "I'm becoming less defined, as days go by / Fading away, well you might say I'm losing focus," he speak-sings. "Less concerned, about fitting into the world / Your world, that is, cause it doesn't really matter anymore."

On the page it reads like more resignation, but from the speakers it offers a new side of Reznor: a sense of humor disguised as fatalism. A one-man band doesn't need to answer to anyone, and with that in mind Reznor for once sounds relieved, relaxed and willing to poke a little fun at himself. Sure, his insecurities demand an audience. But "With Teeth" at least proves he needn't always aim for an era-defining masterpiece to produce music destined to outlast trends and fickle fans.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company