Trent Reznor's back! Hide all the sharp objects

By Ernest A. Jasmin for Tacoma News Tribune on May 3, 2005

Before I listened to the new Nine Inch Nails album With Teeth, in stores today, I couldn't figure out who that imposter was on MTV pretending to be Trent Reznor.

I mean, I can't be alone in thinking the leadoff single The Hand That Feeds is a tepid, overly polished piece of junk. Clearly, it's the color-by-numbers radio hit that Interscope demanded of its reclusive comeback kid. And while there are hints of Nine Inch glory past, all the familiar elements are diluted to the potency of tap water.

It's like hearing a competent but not especially interesting tribute band instead of Reznor, the guy who spewed blood and bile on Ruiner, Terrible Lie and March of the Pigs -- the man who was fear and loathing personified in the '90s.

And that hook? "Will you bite the hand that feeds?" Ugh! Talk about a cliche of the highest order.

Maybe six years off -- plenty of time to succumb to the sorts of vices and neurotic patterns that tortured rock geniuses are known for -- had worn our man Trent's edge to the point of butter-knife dullness.

I braced for disappointment. But, thankfully, my angst was premature.

While it's difficult to say any album can live up to six years' wait, With Teeth definitely satisfies. It's what The Fragile could have been if Reznor had trimmed out all the fat from that two-disc set.

All the familiar, fan-pleasing elements are in place. Synths growl and buzz menacingly. Guitar blasts sear flesh from bone.

And the lyrics; there's no real evolution there. They're still chock full of all the cuddly self-loathing, existential doubt and narcissistic rage fans have come to know and love over 16 years. You'd think Reznor would have totally self-destructed, or maybe discovered Zoloft and Zen meditation, after so many years of venting such extreme demons.

But even if he's still not the most well-adjusted guy on the planet, a dozen new songs (we'll ignore that Hand That Feeds garbage) show his song-writing and production skills to be intact. The latter yield a cornucopia of sonic textures, equally capable of inspiring dread or euphoric bliss.

But there are some noteworthy shifts in style and arrangement. Flourishes of piano emerge from an otherwise synthetic soundscapes. Live drumming dominates where programmed beats once flourished, some provided by Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame.

And some unexpected influences emerge early on. The album opens with the dub reggae inflected All the Love in the World. A creamy bass line rolls along as Reznor begins the journey on the mopey end of the bipolar spectrum. Only is a bouncy ode to self-absorption. And I swear, if you listen closely, you can hear sounds like the drum track from Billie Jean buried in there. And Getting Smaller has that old-school garage meets industrial doom feel, first introduced by Wish. But the fuzzy guitars make me think of the stoner metal of Queens of the Stone Age.

The second half of the album is an increasingly psychotropic listen. The guitars on Sunspots are lushly layered and intoxicating. The wall of sound backing Beside You In Time is powered by a freaky, vibrato synth effect.

Closer Right Where It Belongs is this album's Hurt. It and Every Day Is Exactly the Same provide insight into Reznor's retreat from the public eye.

"See the animal in the cage � are you sure what side of the glass you're on," he sings.

His true singing voice emerges from muffled distortion of the early song as Reznor sings of living illusion and "hiding in the truth."

With Teeth is no dramatic departure. Close listening will reveal a few blatantly recycled parts, like a piano passage that sounds a lot like the end of We're In This Together, a track from the last album. But this album is a stunning refinement of an already compelling and adventurous sound.