Reznor's new bite out of nihilistic life

3 out of 4 stars

By DAN DELUCA for The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 2, 2005

Nine Inch Nails fans are accustomed to waiting.

It took Trent Reznor - the mastermind who, in essence, is Nine Inch Nails - five years to complete NIN's last studio album, the sprawling 1999 two-disc set The Fragile.

So it's no shocker to the black-fingernailed followers of the biggest-selling industrial band of all time that it's taken Reznor six years to deliver With Teeth, which arrives in stores on Tue., May 3.

After all, the Reznor creative process is known to be marked by bouts of depression and writer's block. Not to mention laborious hours in his converted-funeral-parlor home studio in New Orleans, obsessively polishing his testosterone-driven Goth sound into a silver bullet of nihilistic rage.

So the making of With Teeth (Interscope *** out of **** stars) - which will be supported on the road with a new five-man lineup of Nine Inch Nails - must have been yet another torturous ordeal. Right?

"Actually, not really. In fact, no," says Reznor, talking on the phone from Los Angeles, where the Mercer, Pa., native lives. "I didn't start working on it until last year, and once I did, it was pretty disciplined. It went as smoothly as anything I've ever worked on."

The delay, Reznor says, was due to something much more urgent than just writing and recording another NIN album. "It was really a matter of survival," says Reznor, who turns 40 this month. "There wasn't much time left. It felt like things were running out."

Forgive Reznor if he sounds melodramatic. His life would have been over, he says, if he hadn't quit drinking in 2001.

Although that's not explicit on With Teeth - "the music is much more magical when the listener fills in all the blanks" - the songs, Reznor admits, are informed by his realization four years ago that he is an alcoholic. "It was primarily drinking, but that would lead to anything else that might be around," he says. And that if he didn't stop, he'd soon be dead.

With With Teeth, "I was trying to explore where my head is at," he says. "Being sober. Trying to find out who I am. Wondering where I fit in, in society and culture, from a place of being very frightened, which for me was the bottom of the barrel in terms of addiction."

With Teeth, NIN's fourth studio album, is an aggressive, tightly focused record, which features Dave Grohl's powerful drumming along with Reznor's patented arsenal of percussive guitars and programmed beats.

Reznor first married the mechanical clangor of industrial music with tightly structured synth-pop on Pretty Hate Machine (1989). He went on to fastidiously create an alt-rock radio-ready package out of his bottomless, and at times cartoonish, despair.

With Teeth, though, is more direct and effective than The Fragile, which Reznor now regards as "too long, too self-indulgent."

With renewed vigor, the songs depict personal struggles ("I think I'm losing my grip, but I can still make a fist / You know I still got my one good arm, that I can beat myself up with") with the layered arrangements that distinguish Reznor as a sort of funereal Phil Spector.

Reznor may seem like a relic from the alt-rock era. NIN were on the first Lollapalooza tour, and stole the show when they showed up covered in mud at Woodstock '94. Reznor's dubious achievements include dating Courtney Love and producing Marilyn Manson. He also produced the music for the video game Quake and wrote "Hurt," the existential rumination that an ailing Johnny Cash later covered to powerful effect.

Don't be surprised if With Teeth instigates a renewed outbreak of NIN stickers on bumpers throughout the land. No matter how mature its origins, Reznor's alienation-rock has eternal teenage appeal, and the long absences between NIN albums only add to the mystique.

Not that Reznor planned it that way.

On the Downward Spiral tour, he began "dealing with depression, self-medicating." And while the profane 1995 hit "Closer" was turning him into an alt-rock sex symbol, and a pariah to indecency watchdogs such as C. DeLores Tucker, he tried to live up to a media-generated "exaggeration of myself." (He points out with a laugh, however, that he has never been vampiric, as rumored: "I don't live in a coffin and I'm not too depressed to go outside during the day.")

Reznor did a secret stint in rehab in 1997, then backslid on The Fragile tour. In 2001, he cleaned up in a detox and outpatient program. Rather than make another album right away, Reznor, who has never been married but is in a relationship, decided to pull back.

"I'd been using my career as a place to hide," he says. "Just to bombard myself with work and stuff to do." Instead, he took time "just to get to know myself, and like myself again... . And eventually it came time to find out: Can I write? Do I have anything to say?"

What he found was that he had "a notebook full of pretty amazing experiences, most of them quite terrifying," grist for such songs as With Teeth's standout closing track, the haunting piano-and-noise ballad "Right Where It Belongs."

Reznor knows that the road - NIN will play arenas in the fall - will present temptations. Giving in "will mean death for me," he says. It's as if he has "woken from a coma. It's amazing how many hours there are in the day when you're not sitting on a bar stool somewhere."

Reznor adds, "I really feel like I've succeeded because I crawled out of the dirt and challenged myself and was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have a brain, and I can still think, and I probably feel more in touch with my art than I ever have. I'm not afraid of it anymore."

View the NIN Hotline article index