Spendid Reviews: With Teeth

By Dave Madden for Splendid Magazine on April 25, 2005

Drawing the line in the sand by declaring yourself a serious fan of an artist hopefully carries with it the role of staunch critic as well. I won't bore you with my list of imports, my Myspace profile with a stalker pic of me and Trent Reznor at a video game convention, or my story of subjecting my friends to Broken on repeat during an eight-hour road trip (we made it four hours before the punching began). However, I'll say that I'm a longtime Nine Inch Nails admirer -- one who felt very anxious and nervous during the six-year break after The Fragile. Will the Pandora's box contain pit adders, a gift as awesome as Marsellus Wallace's soul, or simply something nice that I already have?

What With Teeth is, is proof that Reznor refuses to rest on his previous work, to be confined or constrained by what he's done before -- Morrissey, take note! The trend Reznor has followed since Downward Spiral is to avoid sounding like Downward Spiral, something he can't entirely do -- nor should he. However, With Teeth's stripped-down sound shows Reznor's confidence in his songwriting. There's still a collection of intricate, fabulous sounds, "instruments" he's meticulously created with cutting edge technology (see the NIN website for pics of the studio to die for), but this time around he lets the songs do the talking, using sound design and soundscapes in small doses instead of as a foundation, and a device to hide the vocals he pushes out front in the mix.

Opener "All the Love in the World" serves as a reminder of what to expect from every NIN disc: don't expect anything. It hypnotically pulls you in, causing you to fixate with doe-eyed intent on Reznor's stark voice, dubby, Massive Attack-style bass and ticky drums that are slowly growing, morphing with subtle filters and panning. Reznor makes certain to draw attention to his lyrics by cutting off the last beat of the measure, interrupting the last word of the sentence "sometimes I get so lonely I could d..." with the chorus. As the track progresses, he doubles his voice with minimal upper-register grand piano while the rest of the music predictably spreads out, distorting and warning of the impending doom. However, Reznor holds back, at least for now -- he turns off the machines, opting for a piano, shaker and bass drum ensemble that incorporates elements of Harlem-on-Sunday and his self-professed love for Kid A. The cast grows with choir vocals and overdriven bass, yet the A-bomb of angst and destruction never drops; Reznor sounds sweet and innocent as he petitions, "Why do you get all the love in the world?" While this track is an exercise in restraint, something to lead you by the hand to the ledge for a better view, "You Know What You Are?" is the man with the big gun who kicks you off the edge. NIN's thousand-pedal wall of guitars runs the gamut, screaming and shaking the walls, matched by guest Dave Grohl's thunderous attack. First single "Hand That Feeds" plays the fool by pandering to mainstream radio without a single lyrical "fuck". New wave drums meet new punk as Reznor offers disposable lyrics, pounding guitars and a Faint-like synth solo -- you know he muted, unmuted, deleted and clicked undo on that thing about a thousand times before conceding. Predictable? Yes. His most substantial piece? Hands down, no, but probably one of his top-three catchiest tunes ever, one I can't stop requesting at dance clubs. "Only" (his fourth catchiest tune) follows a similar template and offers something new from something old. Reznor comps his old "Closer" beat with acoustic drums while strings buzz on the bass; he pokes you in the ear with synthy mosquitos and arpeggiates leads in the other ear. Over the top, there's a spoken word performance that sounds like Lou Reed or Andy Warhol, or Suzanne Vega calling a friend to bitch while in the middle of a pedicure ("I just made you up to hurt myself / there is no you, there is only me / there is no fucking you, there is only me.").

There's a band-focused aesthetic at work here; NIN could play these songs at a pizza place without requiring a host of roadies working on sequencers and monitoring Pro-Tools rigs behind the scenes to pull it off. Even the slightly more abstract pieces, such as "Beside you in Time", are easily pulled off with little more than a couple of samplers added to the bass/guitar/drums ensemble. As mentioned, Dave Grohl is onboard, and whether he simply provided influence to slow down Reznor's penchant for juxtaposition, inspiration and a new bank of samples, or actually played all the cool breaks on With Teeth, the presence of "live" drums gives these songs a cohesive pop/rock feel.

So, having heard it a dozen or so times, can I say that With Teeth is the greatest of Reznor's works? Well, it's certainly his most accessible; it takes hold quickly with shorter songs, and there isn't an interrupting instrumental in the bunch. Once you unclick the repeat button on "All the Love in the World", you'll notice that Reznor definitely made this one easy to play straight through -- he trimmed the "filler" and cut the album down to a modest (by his standards) 56 minutes. Indeed, With Teeth's biggest surprise is how immediately gratifying the majority of its songs are -- even the most conceptual piece, ambient closer "Right Where It Belongs", finds its home without much effort.

But wait: didn't it take me at least a year to stop skipping over "Something I Can Never Have" to get to "Kinda I Want to" and "Sin"? It took me more than two years to let The Fragile play for more than five cuts before jumping ahead to "Starfuckers, Inc" -- two years before I succumbed to the less obvious, more delicate tracks.

Is there enough here to satiate the fans who'll now wait another five years for the next NIN album? Ask again in a few years. I'll just enjoy what I have for now and be happy that Reznor still creates music that makes me tap my toe in public, causes me to freak out if I forget to bring it to work, inspires nervous twitching when anyone I loan it to keeps it for longer than a day (good luck asking me for With Teeth right now), fosters a need to dust off my Les Paul and drum machine and, most importantly, makes me feel the same kind of excitement and awe I did fourteen years ago when I heard Nine Inch Nails for the first time.

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