About halfway through With Teeth, Nine Inch Nails’ return after a five-year hiatus, the most remarkable thing happens: Trent Reznor flashes a hint of humor. It’s so fleeting that it’s fairly easy to miss, but it’s there. ”Only” starts as an homage to old-school synth-pop — its gyrating pulse brings to mind vintage Gary Numan singles — and leads into a Reznor recitation: ”I’m becoming less defined as days go by. . .Kinda drifting into the abstract in terms of how I see myself.”
Typical Reznor self-flagellation, to be sure. But his deadpan, spoken-word delivery is so straight-faced that it has to be a mild put-on, right? By the song’s conclusion he’s reverted to his standard throat-shredding shriek, the emotional aaargh of industrial music. But for a glimmer, Reznor sounds as if he may be tweaking his image as pop’s eternally tormented dark lord, the Hamlet of Goth.
While the last thing from a Chris Rock routine, ”Only” is one telling sign that Reznor has learned, in his relentlessly bleak way, to lighten up a little. Ever since 1994’s The Downward Spiral upgraded industrial music with gleaming textures and more intricate song structures (even its creepy, silent-age videos were spectacularly above the norm), Reznor has been bedeviled by where to go next. His creative anguish spilled out onto 1999’s The Fragile, two discs of sonically majestic yet emotionally and musically inert lashings-out that verged on self-parody. He’d screamed himself into a corner.
Reznor hasn’t exactly mellowed on With Teeth: In lyrics like ”I think I used to have a purpose/And then again that might have been a dream,” we still feel his pain, and wish he’d just increase his therapy sessions and get over it. But both he and his music sound more invigorated than at any time since Spiral. With guest drummer Dave Grohl pounding away like an 8-year-old on a sugar rush, tracks like ”The Collector” and ”Getting Smaller” amp up the heavy-riffage guitars and kinetic rhythms but never deteriorate into chaos. Reznor’s sense of melody and production (sneaking piano arpeggios into ”The Collector” and the razor-edge title song) compensate for the stunted growth in his words.
With the notable exception of ”Only,” which might score him a few brownie points with the retro-post-punk crowd, Reznor makes virtually no concessions to the rock from the middle of this decade. In doing so, of course, he risks irrelevance. Like techno, industrial was a pure product of its era: Its computerized, push-button textures and rhythms and pent-up, children-of-divorce-culture emotions could have only erupted in the ’90s. The bodies in Reznor’s wake (anyone seen Ministry — anyone?) merely underscore that point.
But Reznor has always been one canny king of pain. He’s wise to wait a minimum of five years between albums; the absence only adds to his mystique. And after all this time, he remains singular in his genre. He’s nearly alone in his ability to make traditional rock instruments sound like anything but: Are those guitars or British police sirens on what may be his Iraq-war commentary ”The Hand That Feeds”? And a newfound expansiveness emerges in the glorious epic ”All the Love in the World,” which shifts effortlessly from drum-and-bass tranquillity to acid-house beats and even finds Reznor singing in something resembling a romantic croon.
At times, Reznor comes uncomfortably close to sounding like a teeth-gnashing version of Lenny Kravitz, and he really needs to get past the kind of songs on which he screams ”there is no f—in’ you!/There is only me!” as if the head cheerleader spurned him again. But Reznor seems to have finally grasped that listening to a NIN album should not be as torturous as whatever artistic agony went into its creation.