Second verse, same as the first! Trent Reznor signals his triumphant return with more of the damn same.
I can't remember how this all got started
But I can tell you exactly how it will end...
-- 51; "Every Day is Exactly the Same"
It was in listening to the very beginning of "Every Day is Exactly the Same" that my disgust with With Teeth, Nine Inch Nails' first full-length offering in six long, anticipation-filled years, finally took shape. You see, "Every Day is Exactly the Same" begins with a delicate piano melody consisting of a string of note-note-pause groupings. Perhaps intentionally, it immediately evokes the memory of the end of Nine Inch Nails' biggest hit, the at-one-time-ubiquitous "Closer". Where that motif would go on to become the theme of The Downward Spiral by resurfacing in that album's title track, however, the new-yet-similar melody here serves as a startling declaration of severe writer's block. As that small piano line launches into perhaps the single most sonically uninteresting song Nine Inch Nails has ever released, the listener's suspicions are confirmed. "I believe I can see the future / Because I repeat the same routine," we hear, allowing us to draw but one conclusion:
Trent Reznor has run out of ideas.
The marketing on With Teeth has been genius, touting it as a triumphant "return to form" for the industrial mastermind, as if The Fragile was some sort of aberration that we must never speak of again. In a way, I suppose it is a "return to form", if only in the strictly structural sense. The Fragile was the result of a Trent Reznor who was thinking so much that every bit of his being became exaggerated -- tremendous, ambitious instrumental passages, lyrical thoughts on love to go along with the seething hate, and even a tribute to his passed grandmother made themselves known, yet the mere fact that there were two discs worth of Reznor's overbearing angst made even some of his most die hard fans cry "Uncle!" So it goes, With Teeth is for everyone who wants their Nine Inch Nails in small, easily digestible doses -- keep the album under an hour, and the masses will return. And thus far, it appears that the trick has worked.
My question is this: What's changed? It's been nearly six years! Six years! Six years to flip direction, six years to create something a little bit new. Six years, and what are we left with? Nothing but more of the same.
Take, for instance, "You Know What You Are", on the surface a return to Broken-era rage, but underneath all the venom lies tunelessness worse than the most banal of The Fragile's experiments. The wonderful thing about Broken was that hiding in all of Reznor's screaming and Big Loud Guitars were tasty little pop songs. No such luck here. Perhaps the move away from pop melodies was intentional, given that Reznor's always been labeled a bit "soft" by industrial standards for their inclusion; if that were the case, however, one would think that perhaps the stolid verse-chorus structure (including the laughably awful repetition of "DON'T! YOU! FUCK! ING! KNOW! WHAT! YOU! ARE!" four times as the chorus) might take a hit as well. Not so -- where the structure of a Nine Inch Nails song was once unpredictable, we now have conveniently dumbed-down verses and choruses that tend to repeat one line four times ("With Teeth": "Uh WITH uh TEETH uh!" "Only": "There is no you, there is only me!", with an added "fucking" thrown in on the latter for variety). If the lyrics were sacrificed for the sake of some boffo instrumentation, that would be fine as well, but most of these songs take a rather uncharacteristic approach for Nine Inch Nails, in that their moods never change. If a song starts angry, it will finish angry. If it starts melancholy, it will finish melancholy.
Are there exceptions? Sure. For starters, Reznor still knows how to create an effective bookend. Opener "All the Love in the World", despite some seriously arrested development in the lyric department, traverses a ton of musical ground in a slow transformation from drum'n'bass-touched slow-burn to barreling-down-the-highway "Free Bird" jam, complete with tambourines and lots of multi-tracked vocals. Alternately, "Right Where It Belongs" is an effective closer, with lyrics that don't grate quite so much as the rest of the album ("You can live in this illusion / You can choose to believe / You keep looking but you can't find the woods / While you're hiding in the trees") and an strangely effective bouncy piano line providing the melody. Reznor also succeeds in a rare push toward recent trends, as the new wave revivals "The Hand That Feeds" and "Only" are melodically engaging and sexy as hell, respectively.
Unfortunately, the good bits are stashed away on tracks 1, 4, 8, and 13, a spread that effectively prevents With Teeth from establishing any sort of momentum whatsoever.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of With Teeth is just how flaccid most of it sounds, even as studio drummer extraordinaire Dave Grohl is pounding away fruitlessly on the skins. Honestly, his drumming sticks out as the one thing consistently worth listening to on the album, whether he's pounding away at the frenetic beats of "You Know What You Are" or somehow managing his way around the odd time signatures of the otherwise painfully boring "The Collector". Everything else, well, we've heard it before, and better. The best thing Reznor did on this album was keep it (relatively) short -- the album's quick end will trick plenty of people into thinking that listening to it isn't really such a torturous experience. Don't be fooled -- With Teeth is all gums.