Nine Inch Nails

With Teeth (4/5)

By Stuart Berman for Eye on May 5, 2005

It takes Trent Reznor five years to finish Nine Inch Nails records but it only took Johnny Cash three minutes to show us why we bother waiting for them.

With 1999's double-disc The Fragile, NIN aimed for industrial-rock's epic equivalent to London Calling, but would up with its Sandanista! instead: inspiration undermined by indulgence. So when Johnny Cash got up off his deathbed in 2002 to give his deeply affecting and disarming cover of Reznor's 1994 ballad "Hurt," we were reminded that beneath NIN's ProTools processing and feedback frequencies was a skilled pop songwriter who could turn the solipsism of pain and loneliness into universal intimacies. Really, deep down, Reznor's just an Elliott Smith or Lou Barlow with black hair dye and a sequencer. Reznor has admitted to crying after hearing Cash's version of "Hurt," and threatening title aside, With Teeth is the product of someone who's been humbled into re-evaluating his purpose. That's not to suggest the album is lacking in shotgun drum blasts, chainsaw guitars and Reznor's unmistakable screams but With Teeth is NIN's most direct, no-fuss set since 1989's Pretty Hate Machine. The difference is made gloriously plain 3:12 into album opener "All the Love in the World": a fractured electro-rhythm and hushed, intensifying melody abruptly transform into a gleaming 4/4 throb, warm house-piano refrain and falsetto chorus.

That's right, Reznor is ready to dance again and with the grinding android grooves of "The Hand That Feeds" and "Only," he fashions a death-disco that's as deviant and seductive as anything on the LCD Soundsystem album (albeit with the tongue in cheek replaced with a stud in the tongue). The supreme arse-kicker, "Getting Smaller," is NIN's most convincing rocker since 1994's "March of the Pigs," setting its digitized distorto-riffs to live-drum locomotion -- and Reznor even throws in knowing nods to the Pixies' "Planet of Sound" and Pere Ubu's "Navvy" to satisfy those who'd rather chin-stroke from the sidelines.

With Teeth's more mid-tempo rhythmic machinations (like the typically sad-sack power ballad "Every Day Is Exactly the Same") are less satisfying, coming off like Crow soundtrack contributions 10 years too late. But like The Downward Spiral in '94, With Teeth closes in beautiful, elegiac desolation with "Right Where It Belongs," a lo-fi, piano-led transmission from an alien White Album. The song may not hurt as much as "Hurt," but when the time comes for Paul McCartney to record his deathbed confessional, better this than "The Long and Winding Road."

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