“Just Remember, It’s For Your Own Safety” - NIN at the Boston Garden (11.08.2005)

Five songs into Tuesday evening’s Nine Inch Nails concert, frontman Trent Reznor paused to explain to the crowd that we were witnessing a historic event. “This is the last time I will ever play an arena with floor seats.” He apologized to the fans, promised to read the contract more carefully the next time, and then, just before launching into the often riot-inducing insanity of “March of the Pigs”, told us, with more the a little sarcasm in his voice, “Just remember, it’s for your own safety.” And so, it was with a palpable sense of anger in the air that the band played on and played a tight, explosive set which defied the restraints of subpar arena acoustics, asinine contract restrictions, and overbearing concert security. I won’t say that it topped the energy of the Orpheum show I went to earlier this year, but it came pretty damn close.

Where it did overshadow the Orpheum show was in the length of the set, in the song selection, and in the theatricality of the performance. The perfect NIN show begins with a slow boil that, by a couple of songs in, is so overwhelming in its intensity that you’re actually kind of scared about how crazed the whole thing is getting. And then it simmers down, down to this point so low that you literarally feel chills, down to this point where a grown man might weep. And just when you’ve reached that point where you feel so damn sad that you’re not certain you can take anymore, the anger comes back. It comes back harder than before, and then faster. And then the show is over and you’re spent and you could honestly answer the question posed in “March of the Pigs”—“Now doesn’t it make you feel better?”—with a resounding, “Yes.”

The set list found on the Echoing the Sound message boards seems about right to me, but I’ve modified it a bit based on my own memory of the evening. I didn’t bother to take it down myself this time as I felt that writing down song names during the last show was the one thing that took away from an otherwise perfect evening.

Pinion
Love is Not Enough
You Know What You Are
Terrible Lie
The Line Begins to Blur
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
The Frail
The Wretched
Closer (The Only Time)
Burn
Gave Up
Eraser
Right Where It Belongs
Beside You in Time
The Collector
Wish
Only
Even Deeper
Dead Souls
Suck
Hurt
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole

The great thing about this show was that since I hadn’t anticipated I’d even be there, having only ended up with tickets because Beth couldn’t go, I hadn’t really bothered spoiling myself. I didn’t know what they were playing for the most part and that meant that around every corner was another surprise. The first of many highlights was when they launched into “Something I Can Never Have”. After the really intense anger flowing through the building during “Pigs”, “SICNH” was an unexpected but welcome follow-up. On a night that would see Old Man Reznor pulling out all three of his most ?ber-depressing songs (“SICNH”, “Hurt”, and “Right Where It Belongs”) it was hard to pick a favorite. Each performance was hauntingly beautiful, but I couldn’t have possibly expected the way in which “SICNH” would move me. I’ve thought, recently, that that was a song that simply wouldn’t age with you, that it was so melodramatic that it would forever be relegated to the soundtrack of my teenage years and not make another appearance. But it resonated with me this evening, it really did.

You make this all go away. You make it all go away. I just want something… I just want something I can never have.

Of course, getting to hear “Closer” with the “The Only Time” bridge again was awesome. And hearing a live performance of “Only” was great, as I hadn’t known how that song would come off live. And I laughed more than a few times at Trent’s introductions and banter with the crowed, laughing not being something I’ve quite accustomed to doing at a NIN gig, my favorite being his introduction to “Suck”: “This is a song I wrote with Pigface about 300 years ago.” But my absolute favorite moment of the night was the three-song set that they did behind the scrim in a callback to the first time I saw them in 1995.

Back in 1995, I was not nearly the Nine Inch Nails fan that I am now. My brother John had introduced me to them in the summer of 94, and I had enjoyed their Woodstock performance, but I was really only into the big songs on each record. When they launched into the three-song behind-the-scrim set back then, I was less than enthused (Although this might have had something to do with the fact that my girlfriend at the time was becoming steadily more distant throughout the night). This time though, nearly 11 years later, I couldn’t wait for it.

A scrim, for those of you who don’t know, is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “a theater drop that appears opaque when a scene in front is lighted and transparent or translucent when a scene in back is lighted.” During this part of the show, the curtain-like scrim is dropped down in front of the stage and video is projected onto it. At key moments in the performance, a light comes on behind the performers and they emerge as quasi-ghostly visions amidst the video. And the video that’s projected onto the scrim at a NIN show is disturbing, strange, and sometimes downright appalling.

They opened that part of the show with the slow, building crunch of “Eraser”, the scrim full of images of insects feeding, bombs going off in reverse, and other such stuff. Then they segued into my favorite track from the most recent record, “Right Where It Belongs.” Juxtaposed against images of Iraq and the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans were scenes of sickeningly perfect suburbia and scenes of ballroom dancing featuring George W. Bush. If Trent released this song as a single with that video as its video, it would be absolutely perfect. None of the video networks would play it, for fear of being too political, but it would be perfect nevertheless. The song, sort of a lament for loss of self, became almost a protest song when played against the backdrop of this footage.

See the animal in his cage that you built
Are you sure what side you’re on?
Better not look him too closely in the eye
Are you sure what side of the glass you are on?

See the safety of the life you have built
Everything where it belongs
Feel the hollowness inside of your heart
And it’s all right where it belongs

What if everything around you
Isn’t quite as it seems
What if all the world you think know
Is an elaborate dream?

And if you look at your reflection
Is that all you want it to be?
What if you could look right through the cracks
Would you find yourself - find yourself afraid to see?

What if all the world’s inside of your head
Just creations of your own?
Your devils and your gods all the living and the dead
And you’re really all alone?

You can live in this illusion
You can choose to believe
You keep looking but you can’t find the woods
While you’re hiding in the trees

What if everything around you
Isn’t quite as it seems
What if all the world you used to know
Is an elaborate dream?

And if you look at your reflection
Is that all you want to be?
What if you could look right through the cracks
Would you find yourself - find yourself afraid to see?

And it was this song, played this way, with these images, that, more than any other, truly defined for me what’s different about Nine Inch Nails in 2005 as compared to Nine Inch Nails in 1995. Off the sauce and off of drugs, Trent has moved outside of himself and his own pain. This has brought about tightness in the performance that wasn’t there before. His songs have become more densely layered with meaning because he’s not just singing for himself, but for everyone else as well. And it’s no longer about breaking keyboards, or breaking people. There is a sense of hope now, a sense that he is trying, with every song of every show, to make a connection, with his band, with the audience, and with that part of himself that he perhaps felt he had lost long ago.