By MARK GUARINO Chicago Sun-Times
Trent Reznor’s voice made an appearance before he did Friday, thanks to cascading white fog that engulfed the stage at the Charter One Pavilion at Northerly Island. Just as the sun disappeared, he started the show, starting with “Somewhat Damaged,” which perfectly summed up the sound he’s honed for over 20 years in Nine Inch Nails — densely processed guitars, drapes of keyboards, urgent despondency and plenty of black attire.
Having just announced this tour as a swan song of sorts — he’s letting the Nine Inch Nails name go on hiatus for an indefinite length of time — Reznor is hardly showing signs of creative or even much physical wear and tear. Unlike many of his peers, he has sustained commercial trends and the recording industry collapse with flying colors: Fans had a choice to pay for or download for free “The Slip,” his latest album, and many chose to pay: Amazon named it one of its best-selling albums of last year. Additionally, the community he’s been effective in grooming through Internet marketing and interactive outreach has successfully resulted in this sold-out tour and a continued relevance despite operating outside the traditional media channels that once helped shape his career.
As for the music, Nine Inch Nails has grown to be just as strident in sound and moods, but more sophisticated in how those dark moods can be presented. Friday’s show featured the raging industrial rock (“Terrible Lie,” “March of the Pigs”) that became the band’s hallmark in its commercial heyday, but other songs showed definite punk, New Wave, jazz and classical influences that revealed deeper textures.
A cover of Gary Numan’s “Metal” gave the audience a chance to see what it might be like to eavesdrop on Reznor in the studio: hunched over a keyboard, he kept to an expertly crafted arrangement that bloomed with computer bleeps and syncopated rhythms. Another cover, David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” surpassed the original with paranoid energy and heavy weight.
Reznor allowed two segments in the middle for instrumental music from “Ghosts I-IV,” the double album he also released last year, and which also became a surprise hit. Switching to chamber style instruments (acoustic bass, chimes, marimba), the music was much more classically arranged and minimalist than others played that night, but still had urgency and voice.
While these moments put a temporarily hold on the general admission crowd’s body surfing chores, they did illustrate a side of Reznor that felt more engaged, at least more than the stadium-sized nihilism he so dutifully obliged his audience on both ends of the night. At 44, Reznor is not really an exact fit to the raging malcontent in the music he made as a young man, so for those songs, he delivers like a pro would: precisely and convincingly.