The Scope: Nine Inch Nails
By Evan Haga for Diamondback Online on May 3, 2005
Nine Inch Nails logo T-shirts were once ubiquitous, covering the backs of introverted Trent Reznor fanatics all around. For those with memories acute enough to recall the early-to-mid-1990s, the Nine Inch Nails logo was a premier symbol of adolescence. Teens wore them while loitering outside the mall, you rebelled by wearing one to junior high school, and the weird guy with the ponytail who pushed carts outside the supermarket could rarely be spotted donning anything else.
Almost as common as the shirts was 1994’s The Downward Spiral, a modern classic and one of the best-selling albums that kids hid from their parents. It was a beautiful collision of a record, mixing the quiet and pretty with the piercing and grotesque, as well as touting an artful ear for profanity. The album hasn’t quite stood the test of time like certain grunge records have, but “Closer” is still in rotation as everyone’s favorite dirty song.
Reznor tried again in 1999 with The Fragile but failed, so here’s his next attempt to recapture greatness, With Teeth. This one fails too, but not as badly. With Teeth could benefit from a hefty trim, as much of the record bores with heavy-handed industrial beats, buzzsaw guitars and Reznor’s unique vocal dynamics: Sing or speak softly, erupt into a scream, keep screaming for a few minutes and then whisper a cryptic lyric endlessly while wandering through minor chords on acoustic piano. Voila!
Despite this monotony, there are some choice tracks on With Teeth, and Reznor still has a unique gift for crafting memorable hooks from brash textures, though true stylistic expansions seem few and far between. Album-opener “All the Love in the World” features a falsetto and Reznor’s own overdubbed vocal harmonies, sounding like a demented doo-wop tune before rocking out, only to end with another piano whisper.
The first single, “The Hand That Feeds.” is a fine track, as is “Every Day is Exactly the Same,” which aside from describing College Park nightlife, exemplifies the album’s lyrical bent. As a poet Reznor has always been a pessimist, and on this release he seems especially tortured by self-doubt and life’s limited possibilities. “I think I used to be someone/Now I just stare into the sun,” Reznor sings on “Sunspots.”
“Only” sounds like Reznor’s attempt at the New Wave revival, with a straight-ahead backbeat, garage-rockish guitars, vintage synthesizer tones and a general “dance-punk” vibe before becoming another industrial onslaught. “Right Where It Belongs,” a nightmarish piano ballad of sorts that includes a spooky, canned applause effect, closes the album.
More meaningful in parts than as a whole, With Teeth contains pieces of the Reznor that temporarily defined a generation over a decade ago, but not enough new ideas to help define the next.