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Simon Price on Nine Inch Nails at Reading Festival: Trent Reznor's not choosy – he hates everyone

The Nine Inch Nails frontman is still furious after all these years. But, at 78, Leonard Cohen knows it's better to be a lover than a fighter

Simon Price
Saturday 31 August 2013 19:18 BST

Our culture tells us that by the time we reach maturity, and certainly by the age of 48, all our angst, Weltschmerz and associated Germanic concepts are meant to be peacefully resolved. In reality, you're equally likely to have accrued far more fuel for those fires, with decades of betrayal and backstabbing to draw upon.

Something's clearly gnawing away at Reznor as industrial rock veterans Nine Inch Nails line up in dry ice across the lip of the stage, looking like a pass-agg Kraftwerk. Hanging off the mic as if he's pulling down 80kg (one addiction always replaces another), the recovering drug fiend is now gym-buff, his black skirt defying you to call it anything other than masculine. Unlike the legendary Nineties shows in which his fellow musicians were kept in cages to protect them against his explosions of physical rage, he now keeps it inside his skull. Just once he breaks his inter-song silence to say, "By the way, fuck rock'n'roll", a reference perhaps to Fall Out Boy's dumbass rockist ramblings on the same stage earlier, or a falling-out, we later learn, with festival organisers.

It's a perverse, almost punitive set, leaning heavily on new album Hesitation Marks and other recent material, omitting anthems such as "Closer", "Hurt" and "Head Like a Hole". The Downward Spiral – one of a trilogy of mid-Nineties noir masterpieces, alongside The Holy Bible and In Utero – is represented by the neck-snapping abandon of "March of the Pigs", outdone only by "Wish", the apex of NIN's trick of combining an almost hillbilly double-time chicken dance with Motorhead-like metallic onslaught. When Reznor bitterly blasts, "Don't think you're having all the fun/You know me, I hate everyone", there's no reason to suspect he doesn't mean every word. For some, this stuff never leaves you.

It's never left Leonard Cohen (The Brighton Centre, Brighton *****). "I don't know when we'll be back here again," the 78-year-old tells Brighton, "but, friends, I promise you this: tonight, we'll give you all we've got." He's as good as his word. And Leonard Cohen's words, we know, are very good indeed. He and his band, of whom spellbinding Spanish guitarist and bandurria player Javier Mas is outstanding, play for three and a half hours (with a short interval). Eat that, Springsteen.

If there was a feeling around his 2008 comeback that Cohen was doing this mainly to recoup the millions he'd lost to a thieving manager, on the Old Tricks tour it's self-evident that he's doing it for love. Leonard runs on stage, and within seconds, as if to prove he can, he falls to his knees like a soul man.

Did I say "like"? No one understands the soul of man like Cohen. His perceptive albums have soundtracked the lives of everyone here, the men fancying themselves in the role of his bedsit Romeo persona, the women fantasising about a visit from the same. The line in "I'm Your Man" about examining "every precious inch of you" raises an unearthly groan.

His hair may be grey, he may have the eyelids and neck of Touché Turtle, but those Dustin Hoffman good lucks are still discernible, and that gift of a "golden voice" has, if anything, improved with age, as deep and rich as a Kimberley diamond mine.

Framed by upward spotlights, the shadow Cohen casts is literally huge, and his canon – "Suzanne", "Bird on a Wire", "So Long Marianne" – deathlessly great. Other, "lesser" songs too reveal their qualities, such as "Everybody Knows", a mordant rumination on the capitalist con and the cosmic joke. And "First We Take Manhattan" is the finest song ever written about the psychology of terrorism, at once chilling and oddly empathetic.

"Hallelujah", a hymn to the orgasm via the mysteries of the Torah, is one of the most bowdlerised and misunderstood songs of all time. (Seriously, what did the stuff about being tied to the kitchen chair mean to Alexandra Burke?) Cohen miraculously brings the old chestnut back to life.

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He's deliciously droll, imagining his first cigarette at 80, served up by a nurse in crisp white uniform and stockings. "Would you mind tapping the bubbles out of my IV?" "Going Home", a dialogue between his inner self and outer self ("A lazy bastard living in a suit..."), takes comic self-awareness to a new extreme.

In "Waiting for the Miracle", one of several encores, Cohen warns, "You wouldn't like it, baby/You wouldn't like it here/There's not much entertainment/And the critics are severe." Not this time, Len, not this time. Only a joyless fool would find grounds for complaint.

There's a surprise third encore of "I Tried to Leave You", followed by a sweet, swaying finale of The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me". With that, clutching his homburg to his heart and skipping away, the great man waves goodbye.

Critic's Choice

Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Franz Ferdinand, Flaming Lips, Chic, Dexys, John Cooper Clarke and Wu-Tang Clan are just some of the highlights of this year's Bestival at Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight (Fri-Sun). Also next Sunday, BBC Radio 2 Live brings a strange and varied bill, from the mighty Manic Street Preachers and Smokey Robinson to the somewhat less venerated James Blunt, to Hyde Park, London.

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