Nine Inch Nails
The Dresden Dolls
You have to respect the Dresden Dolls: it takes a lot of guts to open up for Nine Inch Nails. Conventional wisdom has it that an opening gig for a renowned artist is a plum opportunity for a fledgling band, a chance to play before the largest crowds they’ve ever seen and thus expand their fan base. But the more established band’s crowd often has little patience for the opening act—and there are few as impatient as Nine Inch Nails’s fans.
To their credit, the Dresden Dolls—singer / pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione—weren’t even slightly intimidated, and they delivered an impressive set. Considering the high-octane nature of Nine Inch Nails’ industrial metal, the fact that the Dolls were able to conjure up as much power as they did with just a keyboard and a drum kit is pretty astounding. There were actually quite a few Dolls fans throughout the auditorium, a reminder of the fact that this was something of a homecoming gig for the Boston band.
The only thing I knew about the Dolls prior to seeing them was that they have some kind of hipster cabaret fetish and that hardly boded well. I usually steer clear of groups with such strong allegiances to fashion. But the cabaret didn’t get in the way of the music, which was both gloriously muscular and endearingly melodic. Not only did they make new-to-me tracks like “Coin-Operated Boy” memorable and catchy on first exposure (no mean feat), they delivered absolutely fantastic covers of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”. As opposed to other recent boy/girl duos I could mention, the nascent popularity of the Dresden Dolls doesn’t seem to be a product of the finicky hype machine or snooty rock critic largesse. The next few years will tell, but based on this initial exposure they seem well-poised to become a conquering force.
But though the Dresden Dolls were good, there was no doubt as to whom the crowd had paid to see. Trent Reznor took the stage like a conquering hero, to a deafening roar of rapturous applause. If Reznor needed an ego boost after a few years away from the game, he certainly got it. Since most venues on the current tour have quickly sold out (the Boston shows sold out mere moments after going on sale), the crowds were guaranteed to be only the hardest of the hard-core. The median age of the audience seemed far younger than I expected, meaning that a good portion of the crowd was too young even to remember Reznor’s most recent jaunt, 2000’s “Fragility” tour. There were older fans scattered throughout, of course, folks who’d been with Reznor since the beginning and through all the years in between.
Every new Nine Inch Nails album brings with it a corresponding press blitz, and With Teeth has been no different in this regard. The real difference, and what might come as something of a shock to many of the faithful, has been Reznor’s almost wholesale disavowal of his 1999 magnum opus The Fragile. Sure, it didn’t sell nearly as well as The Downward Spiral, but it was a massive achievement that landed on the top of nearly every critics poll the year it premiered (although—to be fair—not Popmatters’). There was a lot of good music released in 1999, but The Fragile still sounds pretty fucking brilliant. With Teeth is very much a pop record, filled with the kind of hooky singles that were missing from The Fragile. But something is missing as well, and in a live context the absence is glaring.
The first thing that springs to mind while watching Nine Inch Nails is just how consistent Reznor’s songwriting acumen has been these past sixteen years (if you disregard the almost-total absence of Fragile-era material). Brand-new hit “The Hand That Feeds” slid in perfectly next to classics like “Sin” and “Closer”. Reznor has gotten past the aversion to dance beats that characterized Fragile—considering that he wouldn’t have a career if not for the immediate support of the late-‘80s industrial dance scene, it always seemed an odd prejudice. “The Hand That Feeds” is a great single, and the fact that the crowd already knew the call-and-response refrain that echoes over the coda (“Will you bite the hand that feeds you?/ Will you stay down on your knees?”) made it all the more energetic. The fact that he’s still producing singles that stand up favorably to the best of his back catalog is really quite cool—how many well-established artists have to put up with tepid responses to new material as the fans wait patiently for the twenty-year-old hits?
But the old hits were here, too. Reznor pulled pretty evenly from the catalog (except, of course, for The Fragile, which was only represented by two perfunctory tracks), and there were also a few surprises throughout (such as “Burn”, a rarity from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack). Of course he played “Sin” and “Terrible Lie” from 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, as well as fan-favorite “Something I Can Never Have” and the set-closing “Head Like A Hole”. 1994’s The Downward Spiral was represented by the aforementioned (and inevitable) “Closer”, as well as “March of the Pigs” and “Reptile”. The biggest surprise was that customary set-closer “Hurt” was supplanted by the one-two agro punch of “Wish” (off 1992’s Broken EP) and “Head . . .” It added an odd taste to the set.
Whereas previous Nine Inch Nails tours have emphasized the cathartic nature of Reznor’s angry music, this show embraced the music’s worst impulses. Previously, the anger was always offset by a keen intelligence, and the despair was always offset by the catharsis. But the traditional touchstones for this kind of transformative experience were just not present. I don’t just mean evocative “Fragility” set-pieces like “La Mer” and “The Great Below” (although their absence was keenly felt), but the rather cursory treatment typically given to tracks like “Hurt”. Ending the show with “Head . . .” instead of “Hurt” sent the crowd out on an adrenaline rush, but proved a curiously cursory impulse from such a traditionally rigorous artist.
You can criticize Nine Inch Nails for any number of things, but Trent Reznor has never been anything less than absolutely genuine. If, at times, his lyrics seemed underdeveloped, the sentiment behind them was always deeply felt. The problem with Nine Inch Nail’s performance at the Orpheum—as well as With Teeth in general—seems to be that Reznor, in finally putting the demons of perfectionism and substance-abuse to bed, has also lost an element of crucial rapport with his audience. He seemed to be going through the motions. I certainly wouldn’t wish him back to the bottle in order to appease a fannish sense of entitlement, but for an artist who built a career out of laying his soul bare on stage every night, the spectacle of a perfunctory hits-heavy performance is slightly disappointing.
Of course, no one has ever gone broke by selling existential anger to teenagers. Trent Reznor has been around long enough to see the radical template he pioneered turned into a multi-platinum franchise. I certainly can’t begrudge him his success. But there are hazards implicit in becoming a caricature of yourself. There will always be a new generation of kids lining up around the block to hear “Head Like A Hole”, but those who have come to expect something more involved and nuanced from Reznor may find themselves strangely alienated. Considering how strongly Reznor’s music has traditionally appealed to those suffering the pangs of existential alienation, this turn of events is nothing if not ironic.