Live From Nine Inch Nails' Retirement Party

In praise of Trent Reznor, the nihilist-turned-populist, waving goodbye

And then, our stick-figure arms raised ironically heavenward, our fingers clenched into tight, bone-snapping balls of cartoonish fury, we all scream, "FIST FUCK!" in joyously enraged unison.

Perhaps it's more poignant in context. The full line, from Nine Inch Nails' manic 1992 industrial-thrash anthem "Wish," is "Gotta listen to your big time/Hard line/Bad luck/Fist fuck." OK, it's not any more poignant in context. Except it's incredibly poignant here on Saturday night, among the 500-odd NIN disciples astoundingly fortunate enough to bust into the Bowery Ballroom to revel in Trent Reznor's 20-year celebratory wallow in profound misfortune. This is the sort of show where there are 70-odd ticketless dudes lurking outside the venue looking dolorous. How appropriate.

Trent is threatening to quit, you see. No one really believes this. (Brett Favre ruined public retirement for everyone.) But the first—and, at least here, smallest-capacity—stop on his brief, terse Wave Goodbye tour (three cities, four NYC shows) is rife with feverish anticipation anyway, an encomium and entombment for a dude whose every song already feels like a eulogy, a suicide note ("This is the first day of my last days," begins "Wish"). So he saunters nonchalantly onstage—no fanfare, no lowered stage lights, no theme music—grabs the mic with one meaty paw (each bicep is roughly the size of his head), and launches his magnificently lean and muscular three-man backing crew directly into "Somewhat Damaged," a somewhat slower, surlier, more nuanced industrial-thrash anthem, and after he growls, "This machine is obsolete," ZAPPITY-BOO, an Olympic closing ceremony's worth of aggro lighting supernovas behind him, blinding us with sweet, sweet science. Next song: "The Beginning of the End." Next song: "Last," as in "This isn't meant to last/This is for right now." Let the good times roll.

In his double role as both the Rage and the Machine
Tina Chou
In his double role as both the Rage and the Machine

Since we're encouraged to view this fete through a nostalgic, ferociously wistful prism of finality, let us marvel at Trent's two-decade evolution, from doom-obsessed Lollapalooza-era titan (no "Closer" tonight, alas, "I want to fuck you like an animal" apparently being too uncouth a sentiment) to Doom-obsessed perfectionist shut-in (peace to psychotically self-absorbed 1999 double album The Fragile, the perfect way to cap off the '90s) to astoundingly prolific Internet badass (on Shaq's level as a Twitter-er, in his prime, before Trent triumphantly—and repeatedly—retired from that, too). He has spent the last decade finding clever ways (flash drives hidden in bathrooms, iPhone apps) to market his various dalliances (ambient records, Saul Williams collaborations), and though I can't say any of it moves me the way The Downward Spiral did, it's extraordinarily comforting just to have him out there, pumping iron like Henry Rollins, Tweeting like ?uestlove, antagonizing Chris Cornell like . . . a rock critic!

And even if later records like 2007's Year Zero or last year's The Slip aren't his most concentrated symphonies of rage, loneliness, and abject narcissism, they've clearly loosened him up and thus vastly improved the older, harder, really narcissistic stuff—Saturday night, once-joyless dirges like "Heresy" and "Reptile" (which can sure fuck up a 16-year-old's perceptions of the opposite sex, but I forgive him) paradoxically swing, somehow sound more fun. Vintage Nine Inch Nails could have aged terribly—all of that whiny synth-bashing nihilism—but now more than ever, Trent sells it as whiny, synth-bashing populism: "There's nowhere to hide up here," he notes appreciatively at one point. "It's good to be back where I belong: Where I can see people."

(He also says, "I'm too old for this shit," which may have been true once, but he's younger than that now.)

The big whoop tonight is two tracks from 1989's self-explanatory Pretty Hate Machine, both stupendously cheesy and all the more satisfying for it. "Down in It," which Trent sheepishly intros as inadvertently responsible for "the rap-rock genre"—it's basically the evil version of "Semi-Charmed Life," what with the extremely fast-spoken lyrics and all—now reads as very gentle self-parody, like a nü-metal Broadway-musical showstopper; it comports itself as well as a song that ends with a chant of "Rain, rain, go away/Come again some other day" possibly can.

"Something I Can Never Have" is taken way more seriously (upright bass!), a tear-jerking, wrist-slashing torch ballad ("I'm starting to scare myself," etc.) inspired by someone or something that—and I'm just guessing here—Trent couldn't give less of a shit about anymore and probably hasn't for decades, the sort of ultra-maudlin, unsophisticated early work that alt-rock stars of his ilk have no problem completely abandoning in their later, "mature" years, and yet here he is, grabbing his mic stand in both meaty paws like it's a life preserver and belting it out, that trademark just-about-to-cry-but-that-only-makes-me-tougher catch in his voice. The Broadway thing again: Sell it night after night after night, in your double role as both the Rage and the Machine, and make the tourists believe it.

We get a couple of evil-cabaret tunes like that this evening—ominously sawed upright bass, mournful piano, eerie haunted-house ephemera—including "La Mer," one of The Fragile's stranger and more indulgent moments, inching perilously close to jazz-odyssey territory, but redeemed, as with everything, by Trent's absolute emotional investment, leaning over his keyboard and hammering it out like some sort of aggro concert-hall virtuoso. The bitch is Bach. Directly in front of me, a woman in a T-shirt with "INSECURITY" printed across the back sways hypnotically to and fro like she's at a Phish concert. It's the quiet, intimate inverse of the "FIST FUCK!" moment, though, of course, those are way more fun: "Burn," a medium-tempo industrial-trash anthem included on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which gives you some idea as to its degree of subtlety, is forever my jam, at 16, 32, whatever. The crowd as a seething, grinning mass seems to go for "Gave Up," which is fine, too: The bizarre moment when everyone raises their arms again and claps along as Trent moans, "I tried/And I gave up" is heartwarming in its complete cognitive dissonance. He never did, is the thing, and I hope he doesn't start now.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

 
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