Reznor promotes good oral hygiene

By Daniel Richey for The Pitt News on May 25, 2005

Like any normal kid, at the age of 12, I set out to find the most antisocial, obnoxiously vicious music I could get my hands on. Lo and behold, I happened upon The Downward Spiral, and the rest was history. I'm a big Nine Inch Nails fan from way back. Albums like Pretty Hate Machine and Broken got me through the morose gulag that was my junior high school experience. This music is special to me.

That's why it's been very difficult for me to review With Teeth, Nine Inch Nails' first album since Reznor's two-disc opus, The Fragile, was released in 1999. Let me first say that this album is Reznor's worst effort to date. However, the fact remains that this is still Nine Inch Nails, and even its worst is still better than 90 percent of everything out there in the mainstream right now.

This album smacks of a deliberate effort to move away from the overblown, overwhelming, unbelievably complex grandeur of The Fragile. In that regard, it both succeeds and fails. With Teeth sounds very distinctly like Nine Inch Nails while still sounding little like The Fragile. Gone are the many, many layers of infectious rhythm and undeniably beautiful melody. What we get with this album is a grimier, simpler sound that seems to be the product of looser production and more live instrumentation.

What's on the album is an unbelievably intricate and simultaneously simple progression of Nine Inch Nails' sound in the post-Fragile era. The bread and butter of this album is in its reliance on odd, shifting time signatures, heavy, erratic percussion and fuzzed-out guitars. The music and lyrics are both very much arrhythmic most of the time. The showcase is instead the many textures and melodies that pervade each song.

This was a tough one for me to adjust to. I'm very much an old-school Nine Inch Nails fan. I love the old industrial rage-rock sound. As disappointed as I was when I first listened to it, I knew I needed to give With Teeth a good week of repeated listening to really digest it. It grew on me a hell of a lot in that week.

As big a departure as this album is from all of the previous ones, seasoned fans will notice all of the typical hallmarks of Reznor's influences as they become acclimated to its sound. Drum-n-bass and electronic sounds surface in the infectious "All the Love in the World," the beautiful "Sunspots," and the kinetic "Beside You in Time." Good, old-fashioned, Downward Spiral-style guitar-driven industrial sounds power the most intense tracks, "You Know What You Are?" and "Getting Smaller" (the latter of which is my favorite song on the disc by a solid margin). Tracks such as "Every Day is Exactly the Same" and "The Collector" are more reminiscent of The Fragile's more melodic and stripped-down moments.

However, this is the first Nine Inch Nails album to have a chunk of throwaway material on it. Songs like "Love is Not Enough," "The Line Begins to Blur" and the title track, probably the least engaging song on the album, sound like material slapped together from stuff that didn't make the cut for The Fragile. And "Right Where it Belongs," while decent, sounds like a less-inspired version of every other quiet song from the Nine Inch Nails catalog.

The most marked departure of all, however, is not in the music. The lyrics on the album are considerably different in tone from virtually all previous Nine Inch Nails material. Gone is the goth foreboding and misery. It's been replaced by a more existential, cryptic world weariness that is more down to earth, less theatrical and, dare I say, considerably more focused. This is new lyrical ground for a more mature Nine Inch Nails, and unlike in the past, at times the lyrics steal the show.

Reznor's singing is also quite different. There's very little in the way of the screaming and a lot more in the way of very rough-sounding singing. Reznor's voice is not the easiest to take at times, and it shows in the album's weaker moments, like the atonal yelling that goes on in "The Hand That Feeds," the album's radio single.

All told, this album makes perfect sense at this juncture in Reznor's career. He's not getting any younger, and, perhaps appropriately, some of the youthful vigor has disappeared from the music. But with the maturity has come new promise. The album is less pretentious and overblown than The Fragile, and its sound marks yet another legitimate progression of Nine Inch Nails' style. It's remarkable that an act that's been around this long has managed to break new musical ground frequently enough to keep each album out of the shadows of the previous ones, all the while producing undeniably enjoyable music for core fans and newer listeners alike.

To call this Reznor's worst album is true, but deceptive. It'd be more appropriate to call it his least brilliant album, and even then it's not on bottom by far -- and look at the competition. If I had never heard of Nine Inch Nails before and someone played this album for me, I would hail it as a work of genius, but I'm spoiled. Nevertheless, this is still an excellent album, albeit one that fans of Reznor's louder material will need to let grow on them.

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