Nine Inch Nails’ second and most successful record, The Downward Spiral, arrived in record stores one month before Kurt Cobain killed himself, a bleak opus brimming with malice and misery and enough pig references to tip off high school juniors who had just finished reading Lord of the Flies that Satan was somehow involved. But while Spiral provided easy-bake catharsis for depressed theater students, it was also drive-time music for the weekend dominatrix, people who thought handcuffs were fun but were also into Friends. That first group was mostly responsible for the million units sold of overblown follow-up The Fragile, and it was the latter group’s absence that made that number a commercial disappointment. And so Trent slithered off to sober up and, to borrow a phrase from Bono, “dream it all up again.”
That dream is With Teeth, a record that’s half as long as The Fragile but just as plodding and mummified. The Bono reference is not accidental because Reznor, for all intents and purposes, is his photo negative; where Bono sings bluntly about big, vague ideas like love and faith and hope, Trent sings bluntly about pain and hate and rage. The difference is that you can only pull off one of these noun sets after you hit age 35 and—hint hint—it ain’t the one Trent’s working with. In the past he compensated for this lyrical artlessness with a crafty sonic breadth. The critical shorthand for Spiral may be “paean to rage,” but that record’s best moments are actually the quiet ones: the jazzbo bass thunk of “Piggy,” the Vince Guaraldi breakdown on the chorus of “March of the Pigs,” “Closer” ‘s Atari porno aesthetic. With Teeth is all pain-by-numbers with no topography or relief—just one angry distorted chord after another.
Volume just boxes Reznor in. Who knew a fondness for light bondage could get you tangled in a Gordian knot? This Creatined misery plays just fine in the live setting, as the group proved during two jaw-dropping and frighteningly kinetic shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom a couple weeks back. But when you’re sitting alone with them in your car or on the subway or in your apartment—well, it’s a problem. A braver man might have realized this and decided to rebuild from the foundation, but Reznor just clings more desperately to formula, keeping his few ballads shapeless and pillaging Broken for the rest. It’s no wonder: To embrace change means to risk failure, and in these shaky days one more Fragile gets you crickets in the concert hall and a three-album deal with Sanctuary. (Here’s Al Jourgensen to tell you all about it.) In the end, Trent’s biggest problem ends up being exactly what he always said it was: He just wants to be loved.