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Working-men blues (continued)

Related Links

Bruce Springsteen.Net

Nine Inch Nails' official Web site

TRENT REZNOR may be a complicated guy dealing with complicated problems in a complicated world. But itís always been easy to find that guy on the albums he records as Nine Inch Nails. Itís been six years since the last one, the bleak (even by Reznorís bleak standards) double album The Fragile (Interscope), and apparently heís been to Hell and back yet again, as he details in a recent Spin interview. This time, substance abuse was the culprit. "I was clearly trying to kill myself" is the quote Spin pulled for the cover. But youíll find the same old Reznor wrestling with the same old demons on NINís new With Teeth (Interscope). If Springsteen specializes in character studies that get under the skin of his subjects, Reznorís talent is in bearing his soul in ways he hopes will get under your skin. He wants you to feel his pain, and heís good at it. With Teeth is a timely reminder of just how good, not because he tells good stories but because in our digital world of sonic manipulations heís a master at creating synthetic soundscapes that both echo and amplify the pain, the debasement, and the ugliness he sees when he looks inside himself. Reznorís the ultimate narcissist. But itís not beauty he sees in the mirror.

There isnít a single song on With Teeth that isnít sung from the first person or doesnít drop the "I" word often enough to make it clear whose point of view weíre getting. "You better take a good look because Iím full of shit," he points out in "You Know Who You Are?"; "I am the plague/I am the swarm," he warns when he gets a bit poetic in "The Collector"; "I think Iím losing my grip/But I can still make a fist," he growls in "Getting Smaller." In "Every Day Is Exactly the Same," he worries, "I used to have a voice/Now I never make a sound."

In fact, Reznorís voice is all over With Teeth, multi-tracked to shock as he answers his close-miked whispers with blood-curdling screams from some digital abyss. And making sounds ó make that grand, epic soundscapes ó is Reznorís peculiar gift. The words themselves hardly matter until he locks into a mantra like the "Iíd rather die than give you control" chorus of his first hit, "Head like a Hole." Even then, theyíre no match for the music ó the mechanical beats, the lonely piano chords, the thundering bass distortion, the massed guitars, the house-of-horrors synth tones, all mixed with machine-like precision to create a nightmarish techno-industrial-complex mirror of Reznorís broken inner world. This guy has no peers when it comes to making post-industrial pop. And he seems determined to remind us of that on With Teeth.

The disc opens with the sparely mixed "All the Love in the World," which echoes the tricky techno rhythms of "Head like a Hole" before moving on to harsher soundscapes: distorted "Donít you fucking know who you are?" screams, the relentlessly hammering drum patterns of "The Collector," the atonal power chords of the title track, the deliberate pacing of the rhythm track that supports "Sunspots." You hardly notice the feedback looping its way through "Beside You in Time."

But thereís more to With Teeth than flawless production. If Springsteen has become a master storyteller who goes out in the world to study little details like the speech patterns of his characters, then Reznor is the tortured artist as martyr, defiling himself so he can turn the microscope back on himself and let us all know what the blackest of souls really looks like. His are songs of the self. Depressing, perhaps, but no less so than the guy in "Reno" looking for salvation in the arms of a prostitute whoíll take it up the ass for an extra 50 bucks. Yet like the characters Springsteen invents for his songs, the Trent Reznor of NIN is a construct, a caricature of the tortured artist thatís only half as deep as the musical backdrops it inhabits. The final irony may be that the imaginary characters who live and breathe in the grooves of Devils & Dust are more fully developed than the real Reznor who bears his soul on With Teeth.

Nine Inch Nails appear this Thursday and Friday, May 12 and 13, at the Orpheum Theatre, 1 Hamilton Place in Boston, with the Dresden Dolls; call (617) 228-6000. Bruce Springsteen appears at the Orpheum May 20; that show is officially sold out.

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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