Nine Inch Nails: 26 August 2009 – New York

Nine Inch Nails

Apologies in advance if this will make for a lousy epitaph limerick or whatever, but it seems totally obvious and coherent that Nine Inch Nails should close up shop, and that it should be a really big deal, if only because Trent has been on the ol’ Debbie Downer kick for 20 years, always singing about things dying and ending and breaking.

I had a hard time figuring out NIN as a teenager, precisely because my foo-fightin’, punkin smashin’ ears always found the singles too openly mopey, but as a nerd, this still is pretty hard to swallow: we’re losing the guy who followed up a career as the defining dark consciousness of 1990s alt-rock by then epitomizing new-millennium forward-thinking — you know, hiding USB drives in bathrooms and all that. Who’s gonna one-up Radiohead now? (I took a little pee break on the way in to the show, by the way, but found only an attendant offering paper towels and Milky Way Minis and squirts of Axe at a buck apiece.)

Those same nerdy tendencies also had me thrilled about finally catching the epic production values which last year made use of a giant Windows error message; it’s scaled way down here, though, presumably because much smaller venues have been chosen for the send-off shows in favor of last year’s arena tour. The show starts, and Trent picks up the slack (with an admirable alley-oop from Robin Finck’s floppy mohawk), delivering every syllable with the utmost intensity, which is actually a pretty disturbing prospect if you really think about it. At the end of “March of the Pigs”, he even took a moment to pose at the center of the stage with his arms extended, looking rather Christ-on-the-Crossy. (Tee hee! He’d probably be quite annoyed if he knew I was making that comparison.)

The whole band is in tip-top condition. “Piggy” just kills, with tight tumbling tom rolls and squealing shards of guitar, all somehow turning into a sensitive intricacy compromised not one iota by the bulldozer power chords, and there’s even an extended gizmo-driven jam in which Reznor turns control over to the drum machine and giant touchscreen bolted to his keyboard. For the most part, my favorites were missing from the set (especially “Just Like You Imagined”, although I guess looking for Fragile-era instrumental art-rock in the first place was pretty unreasonable on my part), but to be fair, they also turned around the ones I don’t really like; in particular “Terrible Lie”, ordinarily a sort of awkward Goth stepsister to U2’s “Mysterious Ways”, was unexpectedly awesome.

All the steam and sweat and fading dry ice eventually clot into a formidable haze which oozes throughout the venue’s three levels –“thick as pea soup”, they say, though I don’t know that I’ve ever actually eaten pea soup so I can’t actually vouch for that. Reznor, seemingly no better able to swim through it than the rest of us, finally absolutely loses his mind on “The Wretched” in a way quite unlike anything else we’d see that night. With the line, “It didn’t turn out quite the way you wanted,” Trent took a leap at the lip of the stage and came down with a stomp and a snarl.

Maybe that’s it. It must be quite a burden having to constantly live inside the parts of your head which the rest of us are eventually able to bury, because it’s your identity and your breadwinner and you know depressed teenagers everywhere need it. Good for you, man. Burn it down, and we’ll see you on the coffeehouse circuit in 20. I’m sad to see him go, but maybe it’s time.

Off we go, then: “Hurt” is magical and magnetic, as it always has been (even before Cash took it for his own elegy), and here, it weighs heavier than anything else they play all night, the only remotely sensible way to end a show; (Or, quite possibly, anything else — a career, a life, a Very Special Episode, whatever.)

But wait, what’s this? Instead, a strange coda — we get an encore filled with Bauhaus, with former frontman Peter Murphy singing his parts from “Reptile” while suspended upside down from the ceiling, strapped together with restraints and dangling from a meat hook like a Saw victim. (Trent would probably love that reference.) So this is how it ends; not with a bang, but with a cover song?

Hmm, let me see if I can do any better:

Here lies Trent,

The sad-sack rocker.

Oh, forget it. My rhyming dictionary just fed me “histamine blocker”. We’re done here.