The missus and I happened to chance upon a top videos countdown on MTV2 the other day and decided to synchronize our pop culture watches by sitting through the whole thing. It was a disheartening mistake. After an hour of My Chemical Romance grimacing through funeral dance numbers and Rivers Cuomo sacrificing his good name on the steps of the Playboy Mansion, we sat in rapt horror, waiting for the number one slot to be revealed. It was watching a car crash; I was half expecting a rap rock cover of “MacArthur Park.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when there was Trent Reznor, there to triumphantly return to his throne and claim his empire of dirt. Nine Inch Nails formed one of the backbones of my early, post-parental musical pantheon and it’s a thrill for me to see Reznor take his proper place atop the pile.
See, I’d be the first to admit it– sometimes, sort of, kind of, Trent is not the greatest song writer in the world. And in a loose sort of sense, we have the success of Nine Inch Nails to blame for a lot of this new crop of crap; Reznor brought a sort of pop sensibility to more obscure “hardcore” industrial rock that brought it into the limelight, precipitating everything from Marilyn Manson down through to garbage like Staind or Mudvayne, who attempted to channel not the technical sound but the emotional intensity and intense delivery.
Ducking the more experimental ground he toyed with on 1999’s “The Fragile,” “With Teeth” sticks to a more straightforward rock approach, coming across like the hybrid child of the infamous 1994 album “The Downward Spiral” and 1992’s violent and unforgiving “Broken.” Reznor hilariously described the album in an interview with Kerrang! as “thirteen songs that are best friends.” The press has also made a big deal of Dave Grohl providing some drum work and, truth be told, he packs his usual punch and delivers when he needs to.
Reznor’s greatest weakness, whether my 10th grade self wants to admit it or not, has always been his lyrics. On “With Teeth,” he sticks to some fairly straight-shooter guns; he’s depressed and blames you and/or himself– which, in the case of the track “Only,” are the selfsame. There’s nothing here to approach the giddy delight of my pick for Worst Lyric Of All Time (“gray would be the color if I had a heart!” from 1989’s “Pretty Hate Machine”), but a couple are still real headslappers. My current favorite is the inexplicable spoken word breakdown from “Every Day Is Exactly The Same”– “I’m writing on a little piece of paper/ I’m hoping someday you might find/ I’ll hide it behind something/ they won’t look behind.”
Weirdly, the album has a lot of odd shout-outs to the Nine Inch Nails faithful. The second track’s title and refrain, “You Know What You Are?,” is based off a vocal sample buried in “Pretty Hate Machine’s” “Head Like A Hole.” Along the same lines, the line “the tiniest little dot caught my eye” from “Only” is a pretty obvious riff on the opening verse of the similarly ancient “Down In It.”
“Only” epitomizes the album’s inexplicable secondary mode– straight-ahead, balls-out Reznor boogie disco. On a track that sounds like Trent’s take on LCD Soundsystem’s hilarious “Losing My Edge,” Reznor lays on the funk like he never has before. Some of the tracks on “The Fragile” incorporated funky bass lines but this is definitely the first time they’ve been brought to the forefront, much less pared with a full-out disco fever mellotron accompaniment.
Opening track “All Is Full Of Love” is a highlight, if only for its tour-de-force last two minutes where Reznor pulls out all the stops; on my first listen, it conquered my skepticism approaching the album. The first single, the MTV-conquering “The Hand That Feeds,” is the best blast of industro-pop that Nine Inch Nails has released as a single since “March Of The Pigs.” “Love Is Not Enough” sounds lifted from the best of the earlier canon while closing tracks “Beside You In Time” and “Right Where It Belongs” deftly sneak in some of sonic flourishes from “The Fragile.”
I’m writing this review on May 17, which humorously enough is Reznor’s 40th birthday. Of all the early 1990s big names, I’ll admit I’m surprised to see Trent as the one remaining culturally relevant to today’s music consumers, but there it is. It’s touching to me to see him going up in the ratings against kids who could be his musical grandchildren– and winning. “With Teeth” finds him sounding looser than ever; a couple tracks are even punctuated with Travis Morrison-esque “heys!” It’s clear Trent has no plans of graceful exit, and if he can bump Hawthorne Heights off the radio for even four minutes, more power to him.