For a week now, I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts on the new Nine Inch Nails album, With Teeth. It was only this afternoon, after watching an MTV News interview with Trent Reznor, that I was able to find the words to accurately describe what I feel makes this album so powerful.
They’re Trent’s words, not mine, but I don’t think that should count against me. When asked about the amount of piano present on the album, he says:
“It was an odd sound with violent live drums and this cold, brittle environment of a piano to anchor everything together.”
What strikes me about With Teeth is how alive it feels. The drums are live, in your face, and driving. The piano, whether it’s a synth or an upright, sounds like a piano. And the vocals are cleaner, less processed, and less weighed down by effects than they have been in years. As I believe Trent has mentioned in more than one article, he no longer seems to feel the need to hide behind the maelstroms of sound he’s built in the past. He’s finally showing some confidence in his ability to write a simple, damn song.
I’m a Nine Inch Nails whore, as you know, so it’s hard for me to write critically about anything the band does. But now, with a few years distance, I can appreciate what Trent is saying when he says 1999’s The Fragile was perhaps too ambitious and too “soundscapey”. It’s a gorgeous record, full of intensely powerful sonic moments, but there isn’t a single song that stands out on its own. The Fragile is the kind of album that begs to be listened to all the way through, for better or worse.
By contrast, With Teeth is more, as Trent describes it, “a collection of songs that are friends with each other.” I am a guy who loves a good rock & roll song. Give me verse-chorus-verse any day. And that’s what this album does. Every song, because it’s built around such a traditional structure, ends up standing up on its own and screaming to be played again and again.
For me, the first half of the album is a little bit uneven when compared with the second absolutely stellar half, but I’ll take what I can get. Songs like “Only”, which calls to mind a certain playfulness lacking since Pretty Hate Machine, and “Right Where It Belongs”, which comes about as close to a ballad as I believe Trent will ever go while still under the NIN moniker, serve to expand the territory that the band covers. And they help make the second half of the album (which might form the second side of an LP version, if they still made such things) one of the most memorable seven song sequences I’ve heard in quite some time.
It’s a phenomenal record. Some reviewers have said that this is the record that should have followed up The Downward Spiral, but I disagree. For all its faults, The Fragile, and the tour that followed it, served to show Trent Reznor some things about himself that he didn’t like. It seems to me that writing The Fragile, in some small way, saved his life. And now he’s back, with teeth.