Every bit of the typical attention to detail and lavish care which Nine Inch Nails fans have come to expect is here.
Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails can be rightfully accused of many sins, but no one can ever say he floods the market with shoddy product. This is a man who typically goes five years (or more) between official releases. This is a man who does not hesitate to record double-disc concept albums. This is a man who has made a career out of laying the deepest recesses of his soul on public display -- occasionally (OK, more than occasionally) indulgent and sometimes puerile, but never less than genuine for all that. The sincerity on display undoubtedly tastes like self-parody to some, which accounts for the group's diminished stature among the tastemaking elite. It doesn't help that a legion of fans take the man at his word without even a hint of irony -- but then, no one gets to pick their fans.
So on this basis it was something of a surprise to see Beside You in Time hit the shelves just a couple months shy of Reznor's next album, Year Zero (set for a mid-April release, barring delays). It's odd in that it's only been two years since the last Nine Inch Nails album -- at this rate, Reznor might actually qualify as "prolific", at least in comparison to the early years of his career (even so, Robert Pollard isn't losing any sleep). It's doubly odd that he'd release two such major projects in such close proximity. Most band DVDs are, let's face it, less than inspired products; usually stop-gaps put out at the end of a tour to cover for the band as they return to the studio. Reznor doesn't work like that: 2002's And All That Could Have Been still stands as one of the most impressive and meticulous live music DVD presentations ever released. With that in mind, Beside You in Time has some awful big shoes to fill.
I needn't have worried. Every bit of the typical attention to detail and lavish care which Nine Inch Nails fans have come to expect is here. There's not a lot of revolutionary new content, and the format is essentially the same as And All That Could Have Been -- a complete show from the 2005-2006 With Teeth tour, presented as impeccably as possible and with a slew of extras. You can forgive Reznor for not wanting to break the mold again if the mold is already close to perfection: I can think of a few other bands that could stand to pay this much attention to their ancillary releases.
In addition to the main performance taken from the 2006 tour, the bonus features contain a mini-set of six tracks taken from the early leg of the tour in 2005, including substantially different arrangements of "Closer" and "Only", as well as performances of album rarities "Somewhat Damaged" (The Fragile's abrasive first track) and "Help Me I Am In Hell", off Broken. There's also a track called "Non-Entity", which to the best of my knowledge has never been released anywhere before. Also included are the two With Teeth-era music videos, "The Hand That Feeds" and "Only", as well as live studio rehearsal footage for three tracks, including "Love Is Not Enough", previously only available on the import single for "Only". There's even alternate video angles offered during a few of the live performance tracks, for those who care about such things.
Soundwise, the concert is presented spectacularly. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the DVD on a well-calibrated home theater system, and the fidelity was nothing short of amazing for a live disc. Without even turning the volume up particularly loud the sound was clear and crisp throughout, certainly a lot clearer than it probably was in the actual venue. Visually, the set was taped with the same (or very similar) setup that was used on the previous DVD, with multiple digital cameras positioned around the stage. Those looking for excessive close-ups will probably be disappointed, as the cameras keep a respectful distance of the stage at all times, but the slightly removed vantage allows for a much better sense of just how kinetic a live presence Nine Inch Nails is. Reznor and his new band (the With Teeth tour band was entirely new) are extremely physical performers, and the kinetic energy they exhibit on stage definitely translate into enthusiastic performances.
Nine Inch Nails' live shows have often relied on impressive video and light presentations. Typically, elaborate graphics have been a hard sell on DVD, as the miniaturized television presentation can't help but trivialize what might seem suitably grand or majestic in person. Reznor's visuals for the recent tour relied greatly on shifting colors, deep crimson and navy blues washing over the stage and rippling like water across specially-designed digital video panels. In the middle of the set a translucent curtain is lowered in front of the band, onto which images are projected, which makes for a striking presentation -- moving patterns and vivid colors set across the shadowy figures of the band onstage.
Thankfully, the impact of these effects is not lost in the context of the DVD (although I recommend spending some time to calibrate the contrast on your TV, or many of the sequences will seem muddy or washed-out). The deep reds and blues jump out against the backdrop of shadowy black, allowing the performers a much more spectacular and dramatic presence than might otherwise be possible. Take, for instance, the one-two punch of fan-favorite "Something I Can Never Have" and "Closer", early in the show -- the former is performed on an almost entirely blue stage, plunging into inky darkness at the end to reveal a dark, pulsating crimson backdrop that definitely magnifies Reznor's already-formidable athletic presence during the latter.
The show itself is exceptional. Two years ago I criticized an early date on the With Teeth tour for appearing uncharacteristically cursory -- a hits-heavy presentation that played on fans' expectations at the expense of the kind of intense cathartic spectacle on display in previous tours. The first leg of the tour was oriented towards small-ish club venues, definitely a step down from the arenas Reznor usually plays -- accordingly, tickets were fiendishly impossible to find (I'm a pretty heavy Nine Inch Nails fan myself, and I had to beg my editor to ask someone at Interscope for tickets, to give you an idea).
To judge from Beside You in Time, however, the problems I had with the early date I saw were later mooted. All the hits were still present -- certainly, he wouldn't get very far without playing "Head Like A Hole" and "Closer", in much the same way They Might Be Giants will always have to trot out "Particle Man" -- but there was also a wider array of deep album cuts and non-single tracks, such as "Burn", originally recorded for the Natural Born Killers soundtrack.
Although With Teeth received mixed reviews -- due in part to Reznor's loss of stature in the critical community over the last half-decade since The Fragile -- in hindsight the album marked a powerful about-face for Reznor's musical perspective. Nine Inch Nails has always been angry music, but Reznor is no longer angry about the same things he was angry about 10 or 15 years ago: the self-centered misanthropy of Pretty Hate Machine and Broken, the increasingly solipsistic descent of The Downward Spiral, and the ultimately self-negating narcissism of The Fragile (an album built for the self-focused solitude of headphones if ever there was one) -- all remain singular achievements, but the emotional impetus diminishes with age.
The best moments on With Teeth pointed towards a newfound maturity on Reznor's part, an awareness of the world outside his own head, a realignment of priorities, as the anger so often focused inward with self-destructive fervor was aimed outward. It says something that the best protest song written in our modern era of political turmoil has not been some retro-tinged piece of baby-boomer folk rock or a pop-punk confection laced with unconvincing ennui, but Reznor's "The Hand That Feeds", unabashedly angry but focused like a laser on the core of economic subservience, religious hypocrisy and martial splendor that form the modern conservative appeal.
Accordingly, the climax of Beside You in Time is marked by the performance of With Teeth's quiet denouement, "Right Where IT Belongs" and "Beside You in Time". Just as the concert memorialized on And All That Could Have Been climaxed with intense performances of The Fragile's quiet, concentrated "La Mer" and "The Great Below", these softer tracks form the emotional backbone of Reznor's harsh, often excessive emotional palette. It's a stunning moment, with Reznor a tiny blip of light behind the translucent curtain, with the upraised hands of the audience swaying to softly plucked acoustic guitar -- it'd almost be a power-ballad if it weren't for what Reznor was actually singing about.
Throughout the song scenes of war and conflict are interspersed with pictures of ballroom dancing and suburban conformity -- but it's not the same kind of cookie-cutter juxtaposition of middle-American hypocrisy that the likes of Marylin Manson have used to rail against the conservative mindset. When Reznor sings "If you look at your reflection / Is that all you want to be?" there's an empathy that was never there in his music before, an awareness of humanity as more than merely an appendage to self-flagellating despair. For once, Reznor's message is a wholly positive one, a plea for regeneration in the face of unyielding inhumanity and corruption. "What if all the world you used to know / Is an elaborate dream?" he asks, as the self-satisfied face of President George W. Bush slowly waltzes into view of the audience.
Whereas Nine Inch Nails once placed a premium on the fetishizing of gloom and despair, wallowing in depression and exulting in hopelessness, Reznor has turned a corner and begun the slow and agonizing process of crawling out of himself, and into a greater rapprochement with the wider world. Almost two full decades into his career Trent Reznor has stepped away from his own worst impulses, and while the vestiges of his early immaturity will probably always be with him, it will be fascinating to see where this newfound perspective takes him. With the imminent release of Year Zero and his new political direction confirmed by first single "Survivalism", Reznor has taken a bold step away from the long-term assumptions of his core constituency and into the context of the wider society. If the consummate craftsmanship on display here is any indication, he knows exactly what he's doing -- Beside You in Time is less the last gasp of the With Teeth era than the first shot off the bow for his newfound relevance. Now that he's finally grown up, Reznor should once again prove to be a formidable force.