By Mark Guarino
Anger is universal and if that wasn’t so, Trent Reznor would be out of a job. Nine Inch Nails, his one-man army of industrial rock, returns next week when “With Teeth” (Interscope), his first album in six years, hits stores and he embarks on a world tour which arrives at the Congress next Friday for two nights.
Sixteen years ago, Reznor forecast the looming discontent of grunge and later nu metal, with “Pretty Hate Machine” (TVT), his debut smash that proved yet again the limits of marketing alienation is based solely on how well it is articulated. Through a wall of guitars, a console of computers, psychologically rich lyrics that flirted with madness, and — most important — melody, Reznor brought industrial rock to the mainstream. With his later albums — 1994’s masterwork “The Downward Spiral,” 1999’s “Fragile” and many EPs and remix albums — Reznor made dark, haunting bubblegum music for nightclubbing. His lyrics mine the darkest depths but remain universal — in 2002, Johnny Cash recorded Reznor’s “Hurt.” And, unlike a lot of studio geeks who can only wave the magic wand inside the comfort of four walls, Reznor was able, through a rotating band of players, deliver the intensity live.
“With Teeth” is more streamlined than anything since “Pretty Hate Machine.” Unlike “Fragile,” it is not a front-to-back exploration of moods. This is a straightforward set of singles that shoot off like fireworks. The emphasis is on the hook, not atmospheric gloom. Not that Reznor, 39, has lightened up, particularly. The rage and tension are bottled into verse-chorus-verse constructs meant to be radio friendly.
The most compelling song is the opener, “All the Love in the World.” At first featuring spitting beats and piano, it travels through several incarnations — one moment elegant New Wave disco, the next, a thrashing rock assault — as Reznor repeatedly complains, “Why do you get all the love in the world?” The choice to have it open the album is good. It exposes the mix of elegance and decadence that Reznor works so well with together and that the masked rock ghouls to later follow in his footsteps — Marilyn Manson for starters — never understood.
Dave Grohl sat in on drums during these sessions, so no surprise that the beats are particularly brutal. The title song almost crumbles through his handy work, and on “Only,” he drives the dance beat heavier than any machine. Reznor is still enamored with computers; the walls of sound he builds are frightening. But like the guitar riffs of “Getting Smaller” that move aside for the vocals, they never overwhelm. Here, the matrix of sounds pushes everything to the brink, but never topples.
Lyrically, Reznor is standing where he was at the beginning, looking at the mirror at his head like a hole. But the fear of totalitarianism and getting stomped on by the Man sound particularly adept in the post-Patriot Act era. The current radio single “The Hand that Feeds” takes the biggest swipe: “what if this whole crusade’s/a charade/and behind it all there’s a price to be paid/for the blood/which we dine/justified in the name of the holy and the divine,” he sings.
He emerges as a better singer — on “Every Day is Exactly the Same” there’s a hint of a croon and on “Only,” his talk vocals create an intimate conversation. Like everything rising from the Reznor camp, “With Teeth” could use a trim towards the bottom to strengthen the top. His nihilism remains danceclub ready. Which, as anyone following his music since 1989 realizes, that itself is a denial of the inevitable and an intoxicating release.