I’ve got to kick off this review by saying that I am positively dumbfounded by how many music critics just do not get this record. I have read so many reviews saying that all the familiar self-loathing and angst is back, and that could not be more untrue. People, this record features high-voiced crooning, prettily performed piano ballads and songs about getting over your damned self by Trent Reznor! I contend, in fact, that With Teeth is unremittingly positive: it’s about affirmation, accepting responsibility for one’s demons, phoenix-like resurgence, and pulling oneself together, for crissakes. There is nothing desolate, desperate, or otherwise despairing about With Teeth.
In view of that, I can’t believe how many rock critics are shamefully not worth their salt, and I want to especially call out Rob Sheffield, who wrote Rolling Stone’s golden handshake, and whose review reads like he saw the “Wish” video years ago, and listened to 45 seconds of each song before writing it. I can only guess that after years of Reznor’s melodramatic angst, some critics have just become inured to all the yowling, drama and volume. That’s legitimate, I suppose, both in view of the yowling, and the fact that professional rock critics probably spend all day churning out glib reviews, but there’s been a sea change in the Empire of Dirt, and a glib once-over is no response to an artist like Trent Reznor.
The evidence that we’re on new ground is there from the outset. With Teeth opens with “All The Love In The World”, a song that is just an unabashed sonic pleasure, and features the aforementioned piano and crooning, blending Reznor’s soft touch and hard edges with deft tunefulness. Asking the rhetorical question, “Why do you get all the love in the world?” very likely of his monstrous and obsessively worshipped persona as a gut-wrenched feral animal, this song makes as convincing a case as I can imagine for health being a better field to plow than sickness for a man of Reznor’s talents. Especially nice is the way he cuts himself off in the verses before allowing it to work up into a lather of cliched whinging (“Sometimes I get so lonely I could… /Why do you get all the love in the world?”), and even better is how, midway through, the piano ushers in layers of joyful harmony before it builds into a funky and gorgeous revelry in pure sound. “All The Love In The World” has the feeling of a man who has found his voice after a long loss, and remembered that it was beautiful. It also introduces us to Reznor’s piano, which, throughout this CD, feels like a character in the narrative of With Teeth in an almost literary sense – one who wanders around in fields of noise, appears prettily around corners of volume, and shores up mountains of electronic buzz and beat with a sort of elemental calming warmth – as if the piano is the musical proxy of the better angels of Reznor’s nature.
Pitting a whisper against a scream, and the notion of a divided self have always been a hallmark of Reznor’s songwriting, but on With Teeth, the volume and intensity doesn’t assault, rebuke, and punish you like The Downward Spiral and parts of The Fragile did. If there is a soft touch here, it isn’t the coy come-on before he rips your head off; it’s the heart of it this work – his voice and piano speaking of sadness, anger, resignation, fear and finally a self-aware, realistic hopefulness – with a new openness and clarity that invites you to enjoy the texture of the sound and emotion without retribution. When the inevitable yowling does begin, and it kicks into full-throated gear on track two, complete with the inimitable way Reznor rocks the F-word like no one else, it’s with a positive lucidity that has never been present on a Nine Inch Nails record. Instead of indulgent self-loathing and petty resentment, we have a guy looking in the mirror, knowing he’s not where he should be. Reznor’s screeched “Don’t you fucking know what you are?” decays in the electronic soup, and is replaced by a whispered “Remember where you came from, remember what you are.” Dave Grohl’s drums replace the digital precision of Reznor’s habitual looped beats with an aggressively human warmth, as the piano underneath the chorus strikes minor notes of ominous warning. The whisper turns into a new roar, but this time, it’s as if he’s reminding himself of his own value before the machine slowly gives way to the piano, which finishes the track alone, like a rueful memory of what’s real.
The clarity keeps coming on With Teeth, with “The Collector”, which, to my mind, takes on the icky-sicky symbiotic relationship Reznor’s melodramatic alter-ego manufactures with it’s audience – collecting feelings to “feed upon,” cherishing the drama and putting oneself in the way of things that destroy heart and soul. The allusion to The Downward Spiral is strong here, “I am the plague, I am the swarm” recalling the beehive noises of that record, but unlike it, also places those evils in his own agency – part of him, and his choices, rather than casting him as a victim. It’s an excellent precursor to the album’s first single; and while “The Hand That Feeds” has the a political edge of a call to arms in response to current U.S. foreign policy, it could also be read as a coalescence of the first three songs, and biting the hand that has fed him for all the years that being a fucked-up, miserable, reclusive bastard have been Reznor’s stock-in-trade. It’s straightforward, hard-driving and purposeful, but it’s probably the song with the shortest half-life on the album.
Variations on these themes continue throughout With Teeth. “Everyday Is Exactly The Same” paints a vivid picture of the wasteland of depression that anyone who has ever known the “noonday demon” will immediately recognize, while “Love Is Not Enough” recalls The Downward Spiral’s “Closer” with “The closer we think we are/It never got us so far/Now you got anything left to show?/No, no I didn’t think so.” It’s an interesting echo, because “Closer” was ostensibly a song about dysfunctional fucking, but at it’s heart, it’s was also about the disappointing fact that salvation is not to be found by losing oneself in sex and love. “Love Is Not Enough” continues the theme of getting ahold of oneself, admitting the lies we tell ourselves, and acknowledging agency in that disappointment. “With Teeth” personifies addiction as a jealous lover, and then denies her, and “Only” tells the monster that took over years of Reznor’s life to fuck off with a funky 80′s disco beat and a spoken word delivery that is not without a wry, self-aware humor. Who among us ever thought it would be possible to write that last sentence in reference to His Dark, Raging, Imperial Majesty?
It all wraps up with “Right Where It Belongs”, the most beautiful, clear-minded, and least desolate song Trent Reznor has ever written. “Right Where It Belongs” feels like listening to his thoughts, or walking through his dreams, with it’s backdrop of car and crowd noises. The comparison to The Downward Spiral’s tearful closer is irresistible, and it shares an undeniable sense of elemental singularity with “Hurt”, but thematically, it’s a million miles away, with a self kept instead of lost. “What if everything around you isn’t quite as it seems,” he sings, softly, accompanying himself on the piano, “what if everything you think you know is an elaborate dream?” There’s tremendous power in realizing that you’ve got a hand in creating your reality, and in accepting the power to change what’s wrong. The Trent Reznor who’s always been stretched out on the rack of his personal demons – the tortured victim of all that shouldn’t be – couldn’t have written this song.
There was a real power in Reznor’s outright, full-throttle rejection of anything that wasn’t pure – including himself – and his intrepid willingness to go all the way was thrilling, recalling Marcel Proust’s exhortation to “never be afraid of going too far, for the truth lies always beyond.” As much as Reznor’s prior work has been front-loaded with self-loathing and destruction, it’s always ultimately been about a desire for truth and pure, elemental subjectivity. With Teeth has all of Reznor’s careful genius, but without the claustrophobia; and in the least skeevy way possible, it’s packed with self-love and reconstruction. After 1999′s worrying two disc epic, The Fragile, which felt less like a follow-up to The Downward Spiral’s promise than a scary detour into a desolate, if gorgeous, no man’s land, With Teeth offers the enormous aesthetic satisfaction of a derailed narrative put to rights, and it’s a beautiful record. For the first time in his career, Trent Reznor has built himself an open road.
I can’t wait to hear what happens next.