Album: Nine Inch Nails

With Teeth, INTERSCOPE
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The Independent Culture

It's been six years since The Fragile, Trent Reznor's last missive from the shores of despair, cast its pall over the pop landscape. It's hard to tell what, if any, changes have affected him since. The twin towers have fallen, a grisly war has been waged, and George Bush was elected President - twice. Natural disasters assailed the globe, but none appears to have registered on Reznor's radar. "I'm alone, but then I always was," he claims at one point. "There is no you, there is only me." With Teeth is extreme solipsism masquerading as art and/or entertainment, but ultimately convincing in neither respect.

It's been six years since The Fragile, Trent Reznor's last missive from the shores of despair, cast its pall over the pop landscape. It's hard to tell what, if any, changes have affected him since. The twin towers have fallen, a grisly war has been waged, and George Bush was elected President - twice. Natural disasters assailed the globe, but none appears to have registered on Reznor's radar. "I'm alone, but then I always was," he claims at one point. "There is no you, there is only me." With Teeth is extreme solipsism masquerading as art and/or entertainment, but ultimately convincing in neither respect.

Not that there's anything wrong in ignoring external events in favour of one's internal mental processes; but after six years of self-examination, even Reznor is finding less and less there to occupy him. The recurrent theme of With Teeth, returned to in song after song, is the notion of literal self-effacement, of shrinking, fading away, ultimately disappearing: "I'm just a face in the crowd/ Nothing to worry about" ("Getting Smaller"); "The more I stay with you, the more I disappear" ("Life Begins to Blur"); "Sometimes I think I can see right through myself" ("Only"); and so on, a drip-drip-drip of anxiety that eventually ends in the photo-negative territory of "Right Where It Belongs", with Reznor fretting, "What if all the world you think you know is an elaborate dream?" To which the obvious answer is, of course: wake up, you idiot!

If he were to wake up, Reznor might find that there's more to life than alienation, pain, despair and mascara - all that stuff teenagers affect to try to make themselves seem interesting - and more to music than the pummelling drum barrages, gut-wrenching bass growls and keening guitars that have been Nine Inch Nails' stock-in-trade for 15 years. OK, to be fair, he has mastered the dynamic effect of the quiet piano drop-out passage, but that has become just as tiresome a cliché of the NIN sound, a bogus claim on emotional diversity from someone whose feelings range from self-disgust ("I am the pig"; "I believe I used to have a purpose") to contempt for others ("You can't change anything/ Don't you fucking know what you are?"). Which is really no range at all.

The saddest thing about With Teeth is that unlike his close colleague Marilyn Manson, who traffics in a similar sound and worldview, he has no redeeming humour or satiric intent. Compared to Manson's rapier, Reznor uses a bludgeon. Where Manson seeks to taunt his audience out of their complacency, or celebrate their difference, Reznor appears to want to drag his fans down into the hole he's dug for himself. He should try to get out more, now he's turned 40. Alienation's fine for adolescents, but why make a career out of it?

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