Nine Inch Nails - With Teeth
Trent Reznor's latest offers up a few surprises intermingled with by-the-books scream therapy.
By Spence D. for IGN on May 3, 2005
It's been six long years since Trent Reznor last reared his industrialized pop head and delivered an album to his endearing public. Then again, Reznor has more or less averaged five years between new works, so the time elapsed between 1999's The Fragile really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Still, without a doubt, the question on everybody's lips is "Was With Teeth worth the wait?" The answer, however isn't so simple because the answer isn't clear cut black or white, but rather an undulating shade of gray. This is to say that there's a lot to like about the 13 tracks included here. Yet there's also a lot that pushes the question "After five years away from the spotlight, shouldn't Reznor have pushed the envelope a little further?"
Reznor continues to mine the intersection between industrial clash and pop symmetry with considerable aplomb, but many of his tricks are beginning to wear thin, primarily his continued use of the screamed catchphrase which dates back to his breakthrough "Head Like A Hole" some 16 years ago. Certainly hooks and repetition are building blocks of pop music, but when Reznor is screaming repeated phrases on several songs like an angst ridden teen on a serious bender, well it gets a tad old. Speaking of old, all the screaming seems to have taken a bit of toll on Reznor's vocal chords as many of the songs feature seriously hashed utterances that falter and struggle to hit notes. This has a hit or miss quotient attached to it as sometimes it rings with gruff charm and other times it just feels strained.
Perhaps the best example of Reznor's scratchy timbre comes on the lead track "All The Love In The World." Built around a minimal metronomic beat, Reznor whispers in a throaty manner that sounds whiskey worn and slightly off key as he reaches for the higher notes. What comes to mind is a war torn variation on Elvis Costello combined with a croaky Joe Jackson. Yet as much as the uneven resonance of Reznor's voice aggravates, it also captivates, hovering above the slow build of the music, which eventually includes haunting guitar grinds and blue soul piano. Thankfully when Reznor kicks into a falsetto he hits the notes and brings impassioned R&B frenzy into full effect. It may be the closest thing to a bona fide crossover pop tune that Reznor has ever committed to tape.
Yet just as he's sunken into the blue eyed soul sound, he ejects the motif for scream and rant infested "You Know What You Are," which rails to schismatic electro shuffle and the somewhat stilted aggro chorus of "Don't you f@#king know what you are?" It's a heavy dose of "meet the new NIN, same as the old NIN" except when this glorious cascade of buoyant synth rains down underneath a hyper kinetic rhythm surge and fuzz guitar squonk. However this reprieve is short-lived as Reznor reverts back to his scream and repeat tactics.
Big beat bang beefs up "The Collector," as rumble fuzz bass and snap drums keep it mean and lean while Reznor whispers with muy urgency. It's a stripped down interpretation of PoMo garage rock done NIN style, which is to say that it's propulsive though not necessarily cutting edge. Similar simplistic rock stylings saturate "The Hand That Feeds" but then morph into the Stygian dirge of "Love Is Not Enough" which reverberates with classic NIN sensibilities.
Reznor drops some interesting lyrics on "Every Day Is Exactly The Same" wherein he recites "I think I used to have a purpose/then again it might have been a dream/I think I used to have a voice/now I never make a sound…" making one wonder if he's contemplating where he and his music fit in today's stilted pop climate. In terms of accessibility, this track may just edge out "All The Love In The World" as it's relatively slow in tempo from start to finish and features Reznor's most even keeled vocal leanings.
The title track dips back into the low-end dirge territory, fuzzed out bass intermingling with skirl guitar to create a rich, molten texture. Reznor's sweaty whispering only adds to the swelter of the track. But as with much of the album it eventually buckles under the over repetition of the simple chorus (in this case the title turned into mantra). In stark contrast "Only" starts off like some '70s-into-'80s disco new wave (imagine Devo and Lipps Inc.) having lunch with a Soul Coughing outtake. Whoa. That Reznor essentially talks during the entire track only adds to the off-kilter aspect. It's a nice, albeit uber quirky, departure. Sadly all the quirk and frivolity is stripped bare when Reznor reverts to his scream repetition of "there is no f@#king you, there is only me!"
More of the same is dished out on "Getting Smaller," another standard NIN rave-up. Though this track also reveals what might be construed as Reznor's insecurity/questioning of his relevancy when he reveals "I have nothing to say/it's all been taken away…I'm afraid I'm starting to fade away." Things start out promising on "Sunspots," which again mines the rich confines of Reznor toned down. That, however, is short-lived as the track unravels into angst and grind. Still, it's one of the more intriguing numbers here. "The Line Begins To Blur" deserves mention for keeping the rage-in-the-cage confined to a blurry, chunky thunder. "Beside You In Time" is a wonderful slice of swirling drone and a prime example of Reznor seriously on point. Likewise, the album's closer, "Right Where It Belongs" proves that Reznor is most captivating when mixing washes of distorted electronic burble over stripped down melancholic piano. A fitting ending to a confusing album.
With Teeth is more or less standard NIN. It's got the industrial grind, it's got the buried pop hooks, it's got Trent Reznor alternating between throat wrenching screaming and darkly intoxicating whispers. The unfortunate thing about artists who have reached the kind of stature Reznor has is that they are inevitably held to higher standards, not only by critics, but by their fans. All of which leads us to the inevitable question: After a five year wait, is a more or less standard NIN album really what we deserve? Probably not. In the end, this album serves up some intriguingly hypnotic musical diversions, but more often than not they are marred by Reznor's tired vocal reps. He's capable of generating some interesting spoken nuance, he just needs to ditch the crutch of the repeated screamo chorus of catchphrases and let us revel in the untapped mystery his voice possesses.
1. "All The Love In The World"
3. "The Line Begins To Blur"
4. "Beside You In Time"
5. "Right Where It Belongs"
Overall Score 7.9