In a recent New York Times article that disputes the age-old link between creativity and depression, author Peter D. Kramer claims that it is "depression -- and not resistance to it or recovery from it -- that diminishes the self." Devoted acolytes of Nine Inch Nails majordomo Trent Reznor would heartily disagree with such a statement -- especially since the 39-year-old has always seemed personally empowered by despair and alienation. He's a black-clad Superman embodying Kramer's assertion that in some circles "melancholy is heroism."
Certainly Reznor's larger-than-life mythology of bleakness appears to insulate him from any fan backlash. In fact, the six-year gap between 1999's The Fragile and the new With Teeth has only increased interest in his enigmatic world. NIN's spring tour sold out within minutes, and the band closed this year's prestigious Coachella Festival.
Yet there's something to be said for the concept of despair weakening artistic drive. Initially, The Fragile was a musically absorbing two-disc set, but these days, the sprawling album sounds like the very embodiment of depression as a mental prison: unfocused and littered with frustrated and aimless expressions of confusion, anger and uncertainty.
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It's both a relief and a surprise, then, to hear how driven Reznor sounds on With Teeth, despite the usual abundance of self-doubt and regret. The disc isn't quite as nihilistic or nerve-fraying as 1994's The Downward Spiral, but the two albums share an affinity for radio-ready hooks.
Teeth's concessions to tradition are done without compromising any harshness. "Getting Smaller" explodes with a refrain that's practically a note-for-note re-creation of the chorus of the Pixies' "Planet of Sound." The gothic keyboard sine waves on "Only" resemble Ministry's dark-wave synth-pop origins. "All the Love in the World" even dabbles in industrial's descendant, glitchy IDM electro and crescendoes into a surprisingly dance-floor-friendly throb, replete with falsetto coos and an untz-untz breakdown.
But Teeth makes its greatest strides in the way that Reznor reacts to his ever-present demons -- by questioning their presence instead of feeling trapped by them. This isn't an unprecedented move for him: While Ian Curtis seemed reconciled to impending doom on Joy Division's "Dead Souls," NIN's version of the tune from the Crow soundtrack fought the bony grasp of the underworld, kicking and screaming the entire way.
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Back then, however, Reznor was "too fucked up to care anymore" (on Fragile's "Somewhat Damaged") or lamenting that "it's too late for me" (from that album's title track) to fix his problems. But now he sounds like someone who's just achieved conscious clarity after waking from a long nap -- someone suddenly thrust from blindness to sight, reverse-Oedipus style -- and is really pissed off at what he sees.
Either metaphorically or abstractly, NIN covers the same topics as most pop artists: love, sex, obsession and pain. But instead of wrapping his songs in coy phrases or veiled obsessions, Reznor will just come right out and say, "I want to fuck you like an animal" or "I hurt myself today." He's nothing if not blunt.
Confusing a singer with the content of his songs is always a dangerous proposition. There's definite fascination, though, in studying someone who is drawn to the brink of the bottomless abyss but avoids freefalling into nothingness every time. There's always the nagging thought, "Is this the time he actually jumps?" -- and then a silent cheer when he returns, buoyed by danger.
Kramer's article notes that "superficially, mental pain resembles passion, strong emotion that stands in opposition to the corrupt world." Reznor's passion is mental pain -- but With Teeth proves that he's nearly perfected the art of sublimation.