Five years is a long time in the music industry. Bands, singers and entire musical movements can see their moment completely played out in under that length of time. Think about it; if this was 2000, N'Sync would be selling by the truckload, Limp Bizkit would be hotly tipped as the next big thing, and there would be people out there who actually give a fuck about 3 Doors Down.
Consider the case of Trent Reznor. It's been just over five years since his last platter, The Fragile, was released. It was a sprawling double album, which was, depending who you talk to, an overblown self-indulgence or the best thing he'd ever put on record. Whatever side of the debate you support, no one can argue that the third (that's right, third) Nine Inch Nails studio album of brand spanking new material met with a mixed reception and (for him) lukewarm sales. It also effectively ended his reign as mainstream music's king of misery as the likes of Korn and Marilyn Manson flew past him.
Five years on, and we find Reznor in a very interesting position. He's knocked the booze and drugs on the head and no longer being in the position of having to follow an album that's a genre-defining classic seems to have brightened his mood somewhat. While With Teeth contains its fair share of ear-splitting havoc, the songs on it have a leaner feel than those on previous Halo discs. Individual instruments are easier to identify, and NIN now sound like more of an organic unit that's augmented by machines and electronics, rather than driven by them. It also contains some of the most accessible and light-hearted numbers that Reznor's produced in his career.
The first evidence Mr Gloomy's in a better mood comes right at the start with the album’s opener, 'All The Love In The World'. Stumbling computerized beats under a meandering piano riff anchor Reznor's plaintive croon for a couple of verses. It builds menacingly for a bit and then dumps all the tension by way of a bouncing kick-drum, grinding bass and multi-track vocal harmonies. 'Only' is another sunny example - its new-wave keys, disco beat and chunky bassline ensure that for all the bile in the chorus, the track comes off overall like a good-humoured NIN/Human League hybrid. For catchiness and pure sass, it kicks everything off The Killers' debut straight out of the sixth-story window.
NIN hasn’t completely lightened up, though. 'You Know What You Are' arrives on a drumbeat that sounds like the whirling blades of an attack helicopter and lazer-like synth-lines; the explosive choruses frame Reznor’s screams in white hot hatred – reducing them to pure static at one point. Elsewhere, 'Getting Smaller' barrels along at breakneck pace on a jagged bassline before getting buried under an avalanche of overdriven guitars; and the studio effects and neck-snapping drumbeat of 'The Line Begins To Blur' feel heavy enough to flatten entire neighbourhoods.
With Teeth has taken a lot of flack for its lyrics and if you google the album, you'll see there are a lot of snarky comments being made about this. But criticizing Reznor's lyrical prowess at this stage of the game is kind of like criticizing Stephen King for not writing more like Martin Amis. Reznor's wordplay might not match that of say, Maynard James Keenan or even Coner Oberst, but it suits what he's doing well enough – and quite frankly in a bopping industrial rocker like 'The Hand That Feeds' or at the center of a hate-filled salvo like 'You Know What You Are', exactly how many poetic flourishes do you require?
Besides which, NIN has always aimed its crosshairs at the heart ahead of the head, although when Reznor nails both targets, it's a moment to behold. You only need to look to the closer, 'Right Where It Belongs', for proof of this, where the album's weightiest dramatic heft comes in its gentlest moment.
Saving the best for last, a mournful piano riff lifts the listener out of the shuddering drone of 'Beside You In Time' and into the most beautiful NIN ballad since 'Something I Can Never Have'. You can almost see Reznor smiling ruefully, standing atop the wreckage he’s assembled as the buzzing machine effects swirl and hiss around his gentle vocals. And even if you can't connect with the man's lyrical sentiments, the tune's ability to tug at your emotional centres is more than real enough. Bless his pitch-black heart.
9Nick Cowen's Score