My friends, it's time for you to hear more of my somewhat compulsive thoughts on the topic of Trent Reznor's artistic evolution. I know some of you are saying, "Oh, great! This is worse than bike racing!" And, maybe there are a some who may consider Mr. Reznor to be a big whining baby who makes soundtracks for teenagers to lie awake naked all night with the windows open, thinking about how to kill themselves, and for that reason, maybe you don't take him terribly seriously; but the bottomline with regard to that assessment is that you are wrong, so SUCK IT, bitches! Also, this is my blog, and I'll be compulsive if I want to.
There's a big event that I have not mentioned on this page, but which can hardly go without comment, and that's the fact that I saw The Reznor for the first time in 10 years at Coachella. It was interesting. I haven't mentioned it yet because I was thinking, and in fact, I'm still thinking; but at this point I've boiled my ruminations down to, if you'll forgive me, a somewhat rambling observation, and a question.
My observation is this: my onetime favorite angel of destruction has made a record that amounts to an opposing answer to what I consider his previous magnum opus, The Downward Spiral. If Spiral was about deconstruction (and it was, by the way), With Teeth is about reconstruction. If, on Spiral Reznor's prodigious talents and ridiculously focused will were the creative force behind the curtain, they had no actual lines to speak in what they had wrought - the "i" of his narrative was a destroyer. It was a destroyer who wanted "something that mattered," but a destroyer nonetheless. On With Teeth, it's just the opposite: it's the destroyer who has no lines. He has been marginalized by the man who creates and constructs.
I almost hate to mention this, because the discovery of this kind of detail on one's own is such a gigantic pleasure, but without it, I'll hardly be able to complete my thought: the digtal liner notes and lyric sheet for this record still contains the monster's lines - lines like "no one loves you, no one cares" and "I am the destroyer of worlds" - which have been omitted from the songs, but whose inclusion in the notes makes it a clearer dialogue between the two halves of a divided self. Also particularly brilliant is the artwork containing genetic blot prints with little wires and threads to navigate, leading to the words to the songs, as if they are part of the very essence of what kind of a creature Reznor is - one that is essentially divided between an artist and a monster. I love that he's left those details in, because with them there, it's as if he has acknowledged that monster, who, I must tell you, was a glorious powerhouse of sex, rage and the total rejection of all bullshit; but who could not be allowed to rule the roost any longer, or his creator would die a stupid rock n' roll death.
If I can come back around to my Coachella observation, it's this: it seems as if much of what was awry in Trent Reznor's Empire of Dirt has been put right, and a man who had really become quite awfully abject has made a recovery, complete with a new set of big giant muscles, fancy hair, a tan, a white shirt, and a total lack of any icky-sicky vibe. People, I cannot overstate how much seeing him so well fills my heart with joy. As I have rather embarrassingly said many a time around here, I love the holy hell out of Trent Reznor, and I would rather he never made another record and lived happily ever after than that he be miserable. However, I must tell you that in performance, his prior illin' state packed one hell of a punch. Last time I saw Trent Reznor rock it in rubber trousers, there was a neediness in him - a kind of desire to hurt and to be egged on so that he could rage - and between him and the audience, a symbiotic kind of energy that built itself up, proving and redoubling itself through a three-dimensional mobius strip of contradictions.
That quality of Trent Reznor's performance is absolutely gone.
What was once a kind of lightening strike of self-actualizing performative meaning is now a rock concert, where a guy who totally knows how to make it happen rocks his totally pounding numbers, and a big crowd of people who paid to see him do it cheer him on. It's clean. Again, I can't say how delighted I am to see old sugarbritches feeling so well; but I also can't deny that there was something diminished about his performance, in light of his singing the same old angsty chestnuts, and looking like he feels like a million dollars.
Reznor, I would say, is a performer whose act has always had its own integrity, so much so that his need to make it real night after night turned out rather badly for him in the final analysis. He can't fake it, and anyway, there is no way to fake or duplicate what he once made happen through some crazy alchemy that took place in an ephemeral intersubjective space whose time has passed. There's also no valid aesthetic reason to WANT to duplicate it. Still, it's gone, and the result is an undeniable loss of something that gave his work a very specific power. There is a loss of magnitude.
Now, I'm definitely not the Nine Inch Nails fan for whom the appeal has always been loving the darkness. I've always loved Reznor's work for the opposite reason - if it was wrought in the blackest night, his motivations were all about the light. As much as he crows about transgression, Trent Reznor has always been essentially linear, masculine, constructive, and has always desired objectively present meaning, which is to say, truth. He has been trying to manufacture it, or to BE it, and that effort is my very favorite human effort in all the world. To that end, he was willing to utterly reject anything that was not pure; hence a line of lyric like: "I'm going all the way down, I'm leaving today." For my part, I have always thought he would find something down there, and I have never wanted to see him fucked up.
The guy who made this new record about getting well is the guy I've always loved in Nine Inch Nails, and frankly, I am thrilled by the possibilities that his recovery of himself afford. I'm also thrilled by how much I have no idea how he will regain the strength he once had, but along the lines of this new vector. That's the question. One thing seems clear to me, and it's that something is lost. At the same time, I have positively gnostic certainty that something even better is gained, but I'm not sure I see it yet. I wonder if Trent Reznor does, or if he's just standing up on wobbly, newborn legs.
One thing is certain, though: it's easier to make pictures of hell than heaven.