Like love, this Nine Inch Nails show was pleasing at times, but on the whole it didn’t pass muster; it just wasn’t good enough. Compared to previous near-riotous Nails shows, Reznor is capable of much better showmanship and artistry, not to mention decision-making. A slew of low-level music-to-sleep-to cuts amid several high-powered and impeccably well-performed songs (but band staples really) meant that Trent Reznor, the audience, and the set often morphed into an inanimate tedium.
Reznor’s band ventured forth into Oklahoma City during the first leg of its “Lights in the Sky Over North America” tour on the back of their most recent release—2008’s The Slip, a pro bono gift to fans and a final kiss off to the record industry powers that be. (The Slip is comparable to other records in this anti-corporate mold such as Smashing Pumpkins’ Machina II/ The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music and, more recently, Radiohead’s In Rainbows.) The band played a two hour set that included songs principally from The Slip—a surprising array indeed—but also several songs from its last two major releases: Ghosts I-IV and the dystopian concept album, Year Zero. Unfortunately, two hours seemed like an eternity, and it was something of an anomaly to witness Nails loyalists sitting down for lengthy parts of the set. At least these folks bothered to show up. The crowd was shockingly sparse as well as generally un-enthusiastic if not flat-out depressing. Some moshing took place but it was fairly unremarkable.
Make no mistake, the set list in general was woefully chosen and, moreover, the band’s gesturing and emoting—in particular Reznor’s—was far too orchestrated to be taken seriously; a typical, genuinely spirited and angrily worked-up live rendition proved impossible, save for a few songs and moments, and that was truly sad to see. (Purposely tossing a mic stand toward drummer Josh Freese and dancing about while working a tambourine was hardly upsetting, but Reznor undertook both endeavors.) I prefer Reznor to be more lifelike, impulsive, and truly unafraid to lose some measure of civility, but that didn’t happen. Sobriety may work well when it boils down to the composition of records but, live, Reznor has, alas, become something of a platitude—lifeless and ossified. A statue would provide a decent emblem; Reznor has become a minor glimpse of his former, tortured self.
The major problem was that the band’s chosen set list didn’t suit the audience; or, perhaps, the audience didn’t suit the set list. Several songs from Year Zero and With Teeth (Reznor bravely performed songs from this record) simply fell on deaf ears: “The Hand That Feeds” was anthemic but totally uninspired, nearly numbing in its delivery. “The Beginning of the End” was not so much uninspired as it was misplaced; Reznor played it during the encore when it would have been more effective at the beginning of the set, perhaps opening the show.
Astonishingly, Reznor only played only one song from the critically acclaimed The Fragile; the instrumental “The Frail”, which, on record, leads into “The Wretched.” But Reznor seemed to cast out “The Wretched” from the set for some inexplicable reason. Could he have sensed that the modest crowd was simply not completely into his act? There are many decent songs on The Fragile that could have been played, including “Somewhat Damaged”, “We’re in This Together”, and “Starfuckers, Inc.”.
Four songs were played from the band’s breakthrough album, The Downward Spiral: “March of the Pigs”, “Piggy”, “Closer”, and “Hurt”. But only “March of the Pigs” and “Hurt” were performed with any emotional intensity. During “Piggy”, a wild man jumped on stage and received more recognition than Reznor’s slight performance. “Closer” was, sadly, not performed with the perverse animalism required of it. Reznor failed to put emphasis on the chorus; it was almost as if he felt afraid to say “fuck.” The rendition of the sensitive song “Hurt” during the encore was heartfelt and implied that Reznor may not be utterly burnt out on playing this song, which has acquired an enormous sense of dignity, especially since Johnny Cash covered it. The same was true for “March of the Pigs”, a powerful and nihilistically anarchic live song that found Reznor and company roaming all about the stage.
The band played spectacularly blistering versions of staples such as “Wish”, “Head Like a Hole”, and “Terrible Lie”, and it was clear that Reznor cherished performing the latter as he let loose a fair amount of saliva and played his guitar with remarkable gusto during this song. “Wish”, because of its sociopathic lyrics and abrasive, speed-guitar sound, is a model live song, and Reznor did his best to dramatize it. Based on this show, Year Zero’s “Survivalism” could soon become a concert staple, as Reznor enunciated its lyrics in a pure and impassioned, mock-stutter fashion; he enjoyed playing that song too. I think that “Capital G” would work in this manner too, but they failed to play it. It was also clear that Reznor was satisfied playing material from The Slip. He opened the show by playing “1,000,000” and “Letting You”. These guitar-oriented songs were well played, and done so with flair by Robin Finck, and the audience responded accordingly.
Material from the instrumental Ghosts I-IV was certainly interesting to witness, but at the same time it wasn’t really fitting for a live performance; this was when I saw many fans sit, apparently indifferent. As to the live performance of this material, it appeared to be what Reznor wanted; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s what Nine Inch Nails fans desired. This led to a significant lull in the show. One has to admire Reznor’s sense of artistic integrity, but he could compromise a bit, no? Reznor walked off the stage without thanking the audience, as had all other band members. Earlier he had proclaimed that the crowd was one of his “craziest.” What dark, dark sarcasm.