Synth-rock icons New Order and Nine Inch Nails assume different outlooks on life in resurrecting their careers.
By Christopher O'Connor for MSN Music on May 30, 2005
New Order didn't invent dance-rock; that distinction probably should go to James Brown and early '70s bands like War and Sly & the Family Stone. But what the clever Brits did accomplish was perhaps the most successful marriage between the romantic possibilities of synthesizers and the inherent brattiness of rock 'n' roll.
Growing from the ashes of Joy Division and led in spirit by singer Bernard Sumner, New Order simultaneously embodied the excess of the early 1980s and spun some of pop music's most bitter love songs. The seminal "Blue Monday" may be the tightest of all seven-minute tunes, driven as it is by a wondrously rugged synth line and Sumner's most piercing sentiment: "How does it feel/To treat me like you do?!" The band then took the electronic drama to its absolute summit, the so-melodic-it-hurts single "Bizarre Love Triangle," which lifted the chugging robotics of Kraftwerk and humanized them with chimes and swirling choral vocals.
Now, in an ironic twist, these poster children for rock's post-adolescent whininess find themselves in the most patriarchal of positions. A new generation of bands - including the Killers, Interpol and the Rapture - has ridden to acclaim by appropriating the fey singing and icy synthetics of New Order and their peers, and that in turn has birthed a New Order comeback. After a 12-year hiatus, the group reunited on a whim to make 2001's "Get Ready," and now with the nostalgia at fever pitch have released "Waiting For the Sirens' Call," its best record arguably since 1986's "Brotherhood."
The bandmates realize fully that they're over the hill and in the most luxuriant phase of their wealthy adulthood and, refreshingly, they don't try to return to their self-absorbed early output. The songs are much more empathetic and outward, offering advice on love to friends (cinematic album opener "Who's Joe?"), marveling at life's beauty (Sumner longs for "the mountains, lakes and the human race" on the brilliant "Krafty") and even abandoning all self-consciousness with the silly garage-rock of "Working Overtime." "Waiting For the Sirens' Call" shows that New Order is content to keep on growing in a pop world that wants nothing more these days than to grow up to be like them.
Nine Inch Nails, "With Teeth"
Trent Reznor is one of those club kids who absorbed the mopey digital influence of New Order to become a synth-rock icon himself a decade later. Yet Reznor thrust the digitized emotional charge prescribed by his forbears into darker territory than anyone could have anticipated.
Reznor, performing as Nine Inch Nails, preferred the paralysis of obsession to the gratification of compulsion. His electronica snarled and cut itself on razor wire. The songs wallowed on a distorted and often beautiful bed of pity; very few artists have drawn as much catharsis out of lonesome piano notes as Reznor. Juxtaposing beauty and pain proved not only to be an artistic path to greatness for Nine Inch Nails but a commercial success as well. "The Downward Spiral," NIN's breakout 1994 album, is one of rock's most unusually attractive albums - has anyone ever made more gorgeous or more extreme songs about abhorrent sexual torture? That album's follow-up, 1999's "The Fragile," was just as dark at times. But it also found Reznor at his most intricate and lovely, its songs layered with keyboards and jangling guitars and programmed beats for maximum emotional impact.
Reznor, however, has apparently found more pain than beauty as he's reached mid-life. A bout with alcoholism and a life in recovery has left Reznor more agitated by the crunching bones of industrial rock than any loopy, transcendent otherworldliness. "With Teeth," the first new NIN release since "The Fragile," marks Reznor's least pleasant collection of songs to date. Save for the requisite piano tinkles, the music mostly is the musical equivalent of the Titanic on the iceberg - guitars screech, keyboards chafe, bass riffs lurk like the white noise on a television and, in a decidedly non-NIN touch, live drums (rather than the programmed kind) pile-drive the proceedings into submission.
Reznor's lack of musical pretension this time out does lead to one exhilarating side effect: "With Teeth" is also NIN's most danceable record. At times - on the minimal but bouncy "Only," the nihilistic punk freak-out "Getting Smaller," the drum tsunami "You Know What You Are?" -- it's also scarily funky. Reznor invited ex-Nirvana drumlord Dave Grohl to hit the skins on several of these songs, and Grohl's unconscious athleticism proves an ideal match for Reznor's songwriter sociopathy.
On "With Teeth," Reznor makes it clear that unlike New Order, his second chance at the spotlight won't mark an era of airy acceptance. Anger and anarchy, in his estimation, are more of a gift than a rite of passage.