Nine Inch Nails - With Teeth
By Sean Ford for Coke Machine Glow on May 4, 2005
With all the bold-faced new-wave reappropriation going on these days, it’s interesting that a new Nine Inch Nails album should surface. In the same way that it was fun to hear original post-punks Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma lap their younger admirers and grave-diggers last year, it seems somewhat appropriate to hear from someone who actually furthered new-wave, rather than merely pillage it while wearing tight pants. People forget that for all his gut/heart-wrenching lyrics, pseudo-horror MTV videos and industrial album-art, the reason Trent Reznor was able to crossover to the mainstream so successfully wasn’t a million devoted goth-wannabe mall-rats. It was his ability to marry the claustrophobic, aggressive industrial sound of his idols Skinny Puppy and Ministry with dance beats and the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure of new-wave radio-friendly songs. And, yes, the devoted goth mall-rats helped too.
But six years since The Fragile, eleven years since the Downward Spiral and sixteen years since Pretty Hate Machine --- and after countless hordes of horrid knock-off bands, a well-publicized feud with Marilyn Manson, a dubious collaboration with Bowie and the requisite bout with addiction --- Reznor faces a pretty serious question: will anyone still care? Those mall-rats are either in their twenties or pushing thirty. The crossover crowd was quick to dissapate when The Fragile drew critics’ ire. Shoot, even goth-nostalgics have three mammoth Cure reissues to comb over instead.
Is With Teeth woefully out of time and place? The answer isn’t so clear. Perhaps its primary feat is that the music manages to sound fresher than anything industrial-tinged has a right to sound. This is probably due in equal parts to Reznor’s ability to write and arrange quality, lush songs that operate on a multitude of sonic planes and the influx of talented musicians to help the cause (chief among them being Icarus Line’s fantastic guitarist Aaron North, who shines repeatedly here). Songs like opener “All the Love in the World” and the rawk-ish “Getting Smaller” are flat-out jaw-dropping, and they aren't alone in rivaling key parts of his back catalogue.
But, inevitably, the focus of any Nine Inch Nails listen turns to Reznor. And while the lyrics are an improvement on some of the insanely awkward moments that filled The Fragile, there are still more than a few wince-inducing moments present here, far below the kind of slogans his fans scribbled on their chucks in '92, let alone a decade after realizing maybe everything wasn't so bad. And, ok, angry teenagers didn't end with the turn of the century, but it's not only what he's singing about that hinders Teeth. Even more damning are his vocals, stubbornly rooted in the '90s despite a decade of imitataors bludgeoning the style into a laughable cliche.
If you get the feeling that everyone's outgrown Reznor except himself, you're on the right track. And even if you’re able to get past those (significant) hurdles, there's still the issue of Teeth being an awkwardly sequenced album. Aside from the soaring, building opener (graced with impeccable Dave Grohl drumming), the first half of the album contains mostly what you would expect a NIN album to sound like in 2005: churning, bass-heavy thudding songs with Reznor's mixed highly in front. Basically, an updated Pretty Hate Machine.
The really odd thing, though, is the record's second half. “Only" features a slew of filthy riffage spat-out by Aaron North and oddly self-assured lyrics from Reznor delivered in more of a dead-pan delivery than elsewhere on the album. “Getting Smaller” has a post-punk snarl, “Sunspots” features another soaring North riff and “The Line Begins to Blur” switches gears from a chunky, jarring industrial verse to a pretty key-filled chorus. Teeth's penultimate track, “Beside You In Time,” explodes with a nicely restrained key and guitar-filled coda, while epic closer “Right Where it Belongs” is a stunning piece of piano-driven simplicity, one which seems to come to terms with Reznor’s own shady stint as rock superstar.
If With Teeth were released in the '90s, it'd likely be heralded as one of his best, and yet the only thing really holding it in that time period is the way-back-machine effect of hearing Reznor approach relevancy for the first time since, if we're being generous, "The Perfect Drug." The music is, for the most part, as densely layered and well put together as we'd expect from the man, but, as always, his voice and lyrics will be the thing listeners walk away from this album thinking/talking/griping about. For better or worse, Reznor's legacy was decided many moons ago, and though it isn't likely to win back parts of his fanbase that felt shunned by The Fragile, it's a commendable start to earning him a new one.