Trent Reznor looks back but stays ahead with a rebooted Nine Inch Nails 

Mellow to the Madness

Mellow to the Madness

In March, Nine Inch Nails' art director Rob Sheridan posted the deliriously indulgent tour documentary Self Destruct 1994-1996 on the band's official Tumblr page. A stark reminder of why roving packs of wild-eyed, chemical- and rage-fueled young men with instruments are a total drag to be around — and the fact that simply owning a camera doesn't make your footage worth watching — the long-form video should test the endurance of even the most dedicated fan. If that doesn't do it, try the faux snuff film Broken, which — though never officially released — was assembled by Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV/Coil's Peter Christopherson as a companion to NIN's 1992 EP of the same name. Sheridan attempted to post the Broken film twice to the band's Vimeo, and twice it was taken down for violation of service terms. Sheridan's reaction, as quoted by The Verge — breathless gushing over the film's forbidden-fruit mystique — was nearly as sickening as its extreme depictions of torture and dismemberment.

Both of these videos underscore the extent of NIN mastermind Trent Reznor's creative growth over the band's 25-year career. They also hint at a lingering ugliness and reveal threads of continuity that Reznor explicitly plays up on Hesitation Marks, the first Nails album since his noncommittal 2009 decision to retire NIN, at least from live performance. (Hence the album title, a clinical term for surface scars left by unsuccessful or half-hearted suicide attempts.) All told, the hiatus lasted three-and-a-half years — barely longer than previous absences — which means that Reznor's pointed, highly publicized screeds against record labels and heritage acts are still ringing in the public's ears as he returns NIN not only to the stage, but to a partnership with a major label. Hesitation Marks was released last month by Columbia/Sony — a minor shock given that in 2008 Reznor put out NIN's Ghosts I-IV and The Slip himself. As he excoriated music executives for not adapting to the Internet, he put his money where his mouth was and showed that it could be done.

Perhaps most surprisingly, though, Reznor reactivated Nine Inch Nails after becoming a husband and father. For obvious reasons, familial harmony would seem at odds with the gnashing volatility at the core of his work. Dumbed-down accounts of music history dictate that Reznor turned angst into anthems for the '90s generation. More precisely, he and his contemporaries tore through the veil of our collective social mores with a force that startles in retrospect. Looking back on NIN's meteoric rise to mass visibility in 1994, as the epically woeful sophomore album The Downward Spiral took the world by storm, it's hard to fathom how the culture was ready to embrace Mark Romanek's provocative video for "Closer," which became a runaway MTV hit. At the same time, even amid the inane madness captured in the Self Destruct video, Reznor back then resembled the same thoughtful, soft-spoken, downright polite guy he appears to be now. That makes his personal evolution harder to pin down: The Oscar-nominated guy who addressed PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley as "sir" also tried to reintroduce his audience to the gratuitous sadism of the Broken film.

If, in fact, domesticity has afforded Reznor a new, more settled outlook, it isn't reflected in the music as much as one might expect. Sure, he hardly raises his voice on the new album, which features none other than Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham on three songs. But its signs of maturity lie mostly in how Reznor and longtime co-producer/collaborator Atticus Ross approach the arrangements. A typical song on Hesitation moves into its chorus section without following the standard NIN pattern of getting bigger, more aggressive and awash in saturated guitars, but instead retreats inward. On his Soundcloud page, Reznor explains that he intentionally left a "trail of breadcrumbs" — e.g., the choice to employ Downward Spiral cover artist Russell Mills again, using the same font, etc. — "to make the connection with Downward Spiral a bit more literal."

Likewise, several of the songs recall past work: There are shades of the 1999 double-album The Fragile in the appropriated, digitally rubberized funk of "All Time Low" and an unmistakable nod to "Down in It" from 1989's debut Pretty Hate Machine on "In Two." Thankfully, just as Reznor hasn't sacrificed his music's edge at the altar of fatherhood, he isn't capitulating to his back catalog either. He laces the new material with enough fresh touches to look back on his legacy while also staying a step ahead of it. And he is wise to subvert the angry/happy dichotomy with emotional gray areas that urge rather than scream for understanding. Reznor circa 1994 would have had us believe that he was a nihilist bent on self-annihilation. His new work suggests he may have actually been better at observing than destroying all along — which is what makes the Broken film and the hollow, Chucky-doll aggression of Self Destruct's live footage seem like such an affront to the music.

Nowhere is Nine Inch Nails' development more apparent than in the band's current live show. Yes, a leaked rehearsal recording does expose Reznor instructing his touring band to "pantomime" like they're actually playing during a heavily sequenced section of music. But make no mistake: These guys are working. Whatever fears Reznor expressed about losing his onstage drive were answered in one moment during the band's performance at Lollapalooza in August. In the official footage, touring drummer/multi-instrumentalist Ilan Rubin is playing drums at full intensity during the Downward Spiral cut "March of the Pigs." In an instant, he appears behind a keyboard several feet away as the song briefly comes up for air. (The whole band was required to learn multiple parts.) Rubin taps out the song's signature piano reprieve only to resume his piston-like place at the drumset a few seconds later. You could blink and miss it. Even on YouTube, the band's surging energy, the utterly mind-blowing scale of the visual production, and the sheer scope of Reznor's body of work practically hit you in the face. If this is what musical "maturity" looks like, then Reznor has certainly put in his bid to give it a respectable name.




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