Trent Reznor still holding it together

Five years after his last album, NIN's Reznor continues to grow musically

By TOM MAURSTAD for Dallas Morning News on October 18, 2005

When Nine Inch Nails' debut, Pretty Hate Machine, came out in 1989, alternative music was still alternative, MTV still (occasionally) played music videos and the Internet was just this weird new place most people had never been.

To sum up, when Pretty Hate Machine came out, it was released on vinyl.

So if you want to chart the cultural history of our turn-of-the-century times, Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails, is your one-stop-shopping symbol.

He has gone from under-the-radar phenom to over-the-top superstar to one of those whatever-happened-to guys to Mr. Clean-and-Sober Comeback. The world, meanwhile, has gone through an endless parade of techno-cultural revolutions. Pop music has splintered into a million different micro-markets. The Internet is everywhere and a part of everything. Music isn't released as vinyl records; it's released as lines of text you download from your preferred online music store.

All this whir-blur change and upheaval has turned many of Mr. Reznor's musical alumni into footnotes or fodder for the '90s edition of Trivial Pursuit. (A quick list of Nine Inch Nails' industrial pop brethren back in the day – Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, Skinny Puppy – is a Who's Who of Who? in today's hip-hop world.) It has also sent shockwaves through the media marketplace with whole industries, such as record companies and, um, newspapers wondering what the future will bring or if they even have one.

But 16 years after his debut and five years after his last album, the commercially and artistically disappointing The Fragile, Mr. Reznor is back. There are lots of reasons: He didn't kill himself as another '90s rock superstar did. And being a one-man band makes it a lot harder to break up and drift off into solo-career oblivion. Moreover, he has found a way to both burn out and fade away, and still come back with his best album since that long-ago debut.

With Teeth has NIN's signature mix of noise and hooks, dance-music rhythms and heavy-metal drama. But Mr. Reznor has opened up his music, lyrically and sonically. The power of his old songs had you feeling as if you were locked in a bunker. His new songs take you places: They soar, they burrow, they float.

And as for all the unanswerable questions about the future of music and the future of Trent Reznor, all that complex chaos, his response boils down to this: Keep it simple, stupid.

"Everything that's happened and is happening is interesting, frustrating, maddening and so on. I don't know what it all means; I can't figure it all out and you know what? I don't care," says Mr. Reznor. "The only answer I've come up with is to focus on what it is I do, look at whatever it is only from my role as an artist. So then it becomes a lot simpler. The only question that really matters is which new media are rewarding and which are unfulfilling and gimmicky.

"I remember Todd Rundgren called me and wanted me to do a CD-ROM back when they were this "cool" new platform. And I was like, 'Todd, I really respect you and you've been a huge influence, but CD-ROMs are just stupid.' "

There's a cool kind of symmetry in the way Mr. Reznor encapsulates his feelings about technology as both a music maker and music fan by describing his feelings about the iPod.

"My first instinct was: So now music has gone from albums which were something – you were buying this cool object that had beautiful art – to CDs which were less of something to nothing. Songs were just a couple lines of text on this little gadget.

"But then I got one and I realized the power and the intimacy it gave me over the music I listened to. It was intuitive and rewarding in a way you don't get until you experience it for yourself. Because of it, I listen to a lot more music and a lot more music I never would have listened to if I didn't have it."

Because of the music he makes and the times in which he's making it, technology is an important part of Trent Reznor's career. But not the most important part. To experience that part, you have to engage in the timeworn rock ritual of seeing him live. Trent Reznor is a new-world pop star who earned his stardom the old-world way: he toured relentlessly and put on great, overpowering shows that got the word-of-mouth wildfire raging.

When his debut came out, he played Dallas four times in less than two years. The first time he opened for Peter Murphy. A few people in the crowd were obviously there to see him – a pair of young men who looked as if they had come straight from work at a law firm (loosened ties, rolled-up dress-shirt sleeves) sang along, fists pumping to every song. A few months later, he and his band came back to open for Jesus and Mary Chain. Now a significant contingent of Deep Ellum musicians and scenesters were there.

The show was amazing. On the album, the songs were electronic and computerized; onstage, they were primal and incendiary. It was as if Mr. Reznor had freeze-dried the songs on the album, and then onstage, he added sweat and they blew up into these monstrous, exhilarating creations.

That was all it took. Pretty Hate Machine shot to the top of local record-sales lists. By the time he came back a few months later to headline a show at the Video Bar, the place was (literally) packed to the rafters. The same deal when he came back again to headline a show at the bigger warehouse venue at the Bomb Factory. Replay that scene in pretty much every city in the country, and next thing you know, you have the magazine-cover, King-of-Mudstock superstardom that carried him through the '90s.

And now he's back, after five years off the market and out of the spotlight. He has gotten sober while pop culture has done what it always does: moved on.

Things change, except for the things that don't.

"On the one hand, I'm older and everything that goes with that. On the other hand, I've never been more aware of how much I love music."

Another thing hasn't changed.

"Playing live is all about throwing gas on the songs, making them burn."

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