Tooth and nail

Trent Reznor returns with a ferocious album that confronts his substance abuse

By Steve Morse for The Boston Globe on May 3, 2005

Trent Reznor, the singer/mastermind of Nine Inch Nails, has traveled some lonely roads. His music has defined angry, aggressive, industrial rock on the group's albums ''Pretty Hate Machine" and ''The Downward Spiral," the latter of which sold 4 million copies. Reznor also has shocked radio with unprintable lyrics, coproduced an album for goth-metal star Marilyn Manson (''Antichrist Superstar"), worked on the score for the film ''Natural Born Killers," and even helped revive David Bowie's career by inviting the singer to open a Nine Inch Nails tour a decade ago.

Now Reznor has saved himself -- or so it would appear.

The band's new album, ''With Teeth," is a long day's journey into catharsis. Reznor, 39, has openly admitted to drug and alcohol problems that led him into rehab (he hasn't had a drink in four years). His struggles with substance abuse lie at the root of this new disc, which slams as hard as ever with the techno-grindcore for which the group is known while allowing Reznor to vent about the tortured soul that he had become.

''The more I stay in here, the more I disappear," Reznor rages in ''The Line Begins to Blur," which strafes the listener with blasts of pain-wracked intensity. The same is true for ''Every Day Is Exactly the Same" and new single ''The Hand That Feeds," with Reznor imploring amid a rapid-fire beat: ''Will you bite the hand that feeds you, or will you stay down on your knees?"

Reznor, who brings his band for sold-out shows at the Orpheum May 12 and 13, has chosen to get up from his knees. The CD is one long wake-up call. He still pushes the boundary on language (''You Know Who You Are?" employs the primal screaming of a curse word quite liberally) and paints the picture of one man's identity crisis with raw, uncompromising urgency.

His sonic palette extends from mournful piano on ''Right Where It Belongs" to clanging metal percussion, bruising backbeats, computerized rhythms, and darkly chanted vocals that explode into purgative howls. In short, it's everything you'd want from a good Nine Inch Nails record -- and this time with the satisfaction of knowing that Reznor has used it to transcend his pain. It's good to see him choose life, for no artist can fake an album like this one. Reznor spoke by phone recently from Los Angeles.

Is this the first sober record you've made?

It wasn't like I was one of those guys who had his first drink at age 12 and knew he was an alcoholic. I felt I was pretty normal up until the ''Downward Spiral" tour when my life was becoming something I couldn't quite understand. Fame was descending, along with money and attention -- all this stuff that I didn't know how to deal with. Then I found a way to deal with it, and that was just to numb myself out. . . . It wasn't that I sat down one day and decided, hey, becoming an addict sounds like a good thing to get into. It just kind of creeps up on you. So I don't think it's fair to say it's the first sober record I've written. Through ''Downward Spiral," I don't even remember drinking much other than a social drink here and there.

You took a few years off since your last record. How did that go?

I didn't know it would be a few years, but I was going to take some time off from rushing back into another project to hide in. I wanted to feel OK with myself and figure out who I am and figure out what this life is like and hopefully start to feel comfortable in it. . . . Then I started writing and it was like somebody opened a faucet up. Ideas were pouring out that had been stuck in there. And I thought, not only can I write, but I can write so much more easily and with more clarity.

Your voice is very forceful on the new record, but lyrically it's not like you're waving the flag of happiness. There are songs like ''Love Is Not Enough" and ''Every Day Is Exactly the Same," and ''Getting Smaller."

I feel like I've woken up out of a coma. . . . I have a fresh set of pretty horrifying experiences that I can visit with some clarity now and examine and dissect. And a lot of that is getting regurgitated on this record.

How about the album title, ''With Teeth"?

It seems kind of ominous and there is danger involved here, but it's not from me taking the aggressive stance. I've flirted around with something that truly kicked my ass and took me down. It seemed seductive and it seemed enticing, and that could be a metaphor for darkness or depression or flirting around the edge. I've always been inspired a little bit by being mildly depressed. . . . But as I climbed deeper down into the pit and opened a few more doors, I got caught a little further in there.

How do you know the Dresden Dolls? They're opening your tour and are a Boston act.

I came across their video (for ''Girl Anachronism") on MTV. I couldn't tell if I loved it or hated it, but I could tell that it very much made me think about it. And I was thinking about it the next day. I TiVoed it and watched it a few more times and decided there was something great about it. So I went out and got the record and started to tell all my friends that they had to check it out. . . . And I got to see them for the first time with the shows we did in London, and they blew me away. I wasn't expecting the level of musicianship that came out.

Johnny Cash did a memorable version of your song, ''Hurt." Did you ever meet Cash? And what did you think of his interpretation?

Sadly, I never got to meet him. It started with [producer] Rick Rubin, who is a good friend, calling me and asking me how I felt about Johnny Cash covering this song, and I thought I'd be flattered. . . . Then I got a CD of it in the mail a few weeks later and, strangely, I felt violated. I thought it was a nice version of the song, but his voice sounded wrong because, hey, that's my song and now he's inhabiting it with that unmistakable Johnny Cash voice. Then when I saw the video a few weeks after that, that took my breath away. I saw his life juxtaposed in that and it was goose bumps and tears. . . . That's when I felt very positive about him doing the song. . . . It came at a time when it was a good thing to happen to me because I was about to start writing the new record and I was feeling a bit unsure of myself. It felt like a warm hug in some sort of weird way.