1999 - The Fragile: only a 17-year old high school senior, i found myself in the grips of a weighty aesthetic reconsideration. i leaned less on hip-hop and more towards rock, consuming (jejunely) what i thought would offer more knowledge on that uncharted domain. i had succumb to shit rockers Korn and Limp Bizkit--whose importance was impermanent even then--and thus elevated specific albums to a strangely divine status like Live's Throwing Copper, Stone Temple Pilots' No. 4, and Nine Inch Nails The Fragile. Reznor's piece was significant then mostly because he didn't display any of the accoutrements of typical rock stardum. isolated from the world, he worked ferociously on the double album and his genuine ingenuity was fascinating; in one interview i read he spoke of simply 'getting' everything to know in high school. his immediate disappointment with the world didn't seem to emanate from ego, but from the fact that he understood it.
so, his genius fed the underlying decay found on The Fragile, an album peppered with broken instruments and juxtaposed with a more rarefied industrial aggro. what prompted me to buy The Fragile rather than his magnum opus The Downward Spiral was a greater sense of subtlety on songs like 'La Mer' and 'Ripe (With Decay).' i felt that i would unwrap more layers and that each year that i grew the album would mature as well.
2003 - The Downward Spiral: artistic products of prior years began to wane, and i began looking at music that wasn't immediately digestible or publicly accepted. veering towards outliers like Electronic and Folk, i purchased The Downward Spiral. what was remarkable about the album was its complexity, a marvelous synthesis of industrial rock supplemented by a strong dance element and plenty of sexual overtones. whereas before i enjoyed 'Closer' because of its great 4/4 beat and its somewhat scandalous refrain, i found it representative of a complicated body of work that displayed societal degradation and aggression as coming from sexual, primal human qualities. unlike The Fragile, i began to look at The Downward Spiral as a great album instead of just a great piece of rock music.
2005 - With Teeth: having unfettered myself from wasteful preoccupations such as Existential Philosophy, religious antipathy, and the music of Maynard James Keenan, i've begun to understand music with greater limpidity and respect the time necessary for certain artistic entities to unravel. i discovered the brilliance of Coltrane and Davis, to say nothing of throwing out albums i considered mistakes of fast fashion. Reznor's importance remained closely, if not wholly, anchored to The Downward Spiral with The Fragile becoming a fleeting excursion to my musical days of yore. his precocity may have worked when i was going through the travails of high school, but it currently seemed insignificant; good music is good music whether or not you're a member of MENSA. listening to 'The Hand That Feeds' for the first time i was grossly disappointed. lyrically he sounds enervated and in a creative rut, but that's not the worst part. at least with The Fragile the music could be said to be somewhat redemptive and the lyrics themselves were sparse so as not to obstruct. 'The Hand That Feeds' is simply uncreative, going through the motions of industrial angst.
Reznor's indignation doesn't help make the album any more genuine, as he screams on 'You Know What You Are?' but only manages to sound uninteresting and uninterested. "DO YOU FUCKING KNOW WHAT YOU ARE?" comes off as disingenuous, like a playground bully desperately seeking to preserve his hard edge. 'Every Day Is Exactly The Same' slouches with a lilting, dull piano and, because the pace of the instruments is slowed, the song plods along with no significant goal and makes you glimpse at the remaining time once or twice. the only real non-sleeper is 'The Line Begins to Blur' with its distorted guitar and drums, but halfway through even they begin to cudgel you to death, Reznor's 'I Don't Know! I Don't Know!' putting you back to sleep. closer 'Right Where it Belongs' attempts ambient sadness but only reveals a kind of devolution from The Fragile's redemptive slow songs. on 'La Mer' Reznor didn't try to sing as he does on 'Right Where It Belongs,' rather he comported his voice with the specifics of the musical environ.
what's most absent, and what makes this Reznor's most feeble attempt, is the lack of a theme. 'With Teeth' is a truly malapropos title for an album that's completely toothless and directionless; just a compilation of turbid wannabe Industrial anthems. Reznor's almost 40 years old and part of me can't help but feel that the 6-year span between The Fragile and With Teeth was spent mostly in the doldrums. no doubt the album will sell, that's not up for debate. if he made an album of himself pissing in a cup it would probably go gold. but without a qualitative direction he risks being forgotten because, even at his arguable weakest with The Fragile, he at least had a unifying vision. as he himself sings on 'Every Day is Exactly The Same:' "I believed I could see the future/as I repeat the same routine/I think I used to have a purpose." for about 6 years i used to think the same.