I think a lot of ’90s youth angst was cosmetic. All those black-clad teens shuffling around small town malls in Tripp pants and band tees got rides there and back from loving parents. Their favorite bands’ arch-nemesis was plain old Middle America. That’s a boring villain. The punks fought political upheaval. Rappers fight for their lives. Disaffected teens fought stasis and conformity. Their sharpest weapon was shock. Transgressive art resonates as response to the very specific social sensibilities of the times in which it is created. That often dates it; it’s a laugh to peer back out of the daily absurdity of 2018 to a time when the country seemed united in terror at the sight and sounds of an artist like Marilyn Manson. He was always just a great glam guy in elaborate corpse paint. Like a lot of the figureheads of the ’90s alternative scene, he was just trying to create a space for kids who didn’t feel like they fit into the roles society afforded them. It’s ludicrous that this made people as upset as it did. (In 20 years, if we haven’t melted the polar ice caps, it’ll seem ludicrous that people have come to treat crotchety politicians with the same fawning reverence once reserved for rock stars. Some of the corniest shit you can do is trust the government.)
Trent Reznor is one of the enduring figures of that era because he is a man out of time. His work in and out of Nine Inch Nails has been, by turns, both hyperaware of and also appealingly perpendicular to the climate he’s working in. The band’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, is both quintessential ’80s pop — the product of a decade of blind faith in the possibilities of technology where synths and computers became affordable home technology, before chuds and trolls strangled the dream of a more connected future — and deliberately coarse, intensely psychosexual gothic industrial rock. “Terrible Lie” ranks among the sexiest acts of sacrilege of all time; “Something I Can Never Have” gives Tears for Fears’ The Hurting a run for its winning blend of muted melody and bleeding emotionalism. The beating heart of those records is Reznor’s unnerving directness. He sold prickly messages about the state of the world by accessing the unbridled human desire animating them. He was pushing buttons — it is foolhardy to assume anyone whose breakthrough single goes “I wanna fuck you like an animal” isn’t — but always in service to a deeper truth. Use machines, but don’t trust them. Use drugs, but don’t love them.
Reznor had an easier time with the former idea than the latter. Nails is, in some respects, a project about the tug of war between man and machine, about the fight to stay afloat in a rapidly digitizing world. The group’s crowning commercial achievement, 1994’s The Downward Spiral — a brooding and grueling but also pretty album recorded in the house where the Manson family murders took place — is a song cycle about rejecting faith and desire that many have argued is a concept album about turning oneself into a machine. It is also an exercise in art imitating life. Reznor was, indeed, slipping into a downward spiral at the time, descending into drug and alcohol dependency that nearly claimed his life. “Hurt” approached the subject with the chilling resignation of a last kiss. Nothing about that record or the follow-up, 1999’s frayed double album The Fragile, suggests longevity. Fragile is full of deathly proclamations: “Into the Void,” “Somewhat Damaged,” and “Even Deeper” aren’t the works of a man who plans on living long. You could almost smell what would happen next. Reznor overdosed on tour for the album in 2000, mistaking heroin for cocaine one night in Europe and waking up in a hospital before he spotted the difference.
Getting clean over the next few years changed Trent Reznor’s entire trajectory. 2005’s With Teeth reintroduced Nine Inch Nails as sleek, muscular art rock, thanks to a group of players the singer and producer nicked from the finest bands in hard rock and beyond. Drums were outsourced to Dave Grohl; Marilyn Manson alum Jeordie White played bass on tour. The propulsive disco affectations of “Only” and “The Hand That Feeds” restored the Billboard Hot 100 traction that The Fragile brilliantly bungled on dirge-like pacing and unpredictable structures. 2007’s Year Zero imagined Bush’s America as a precursor to a coming apocalypse and launched an alternate reality game that sent fans poring through messages hidden in websites, tour merch, and flash drives stashed away at shows; 2008’s instrumental album Ghosts I-IV was released by surprise, and the same year’s The Slip followed Radiohead’s In Rainbows in circumventing the major label machine and gifting fans the music for free. By the end of the decade, Reznor’s talents as a player, producer, and arranger had earned him an Academy Award for the score to David Fincher’s Facebook movie The Social Network, created alongside his producer pal Atticus Ross.
In this decade, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are Nine Inch Nails. The pair releases new music at a steady clip, and most of it is quite good. This year’s Bad Witch was originally conceptualized as the third in a series of EPs that includes 2016’s Not the Actual Events and 2017’s Add Violence, but it blossomed over time into a 30-minute album. Witch skates blissfully across genre lines, embracing aspects of jazz and drum and bass on cuts like “God Break Down the Door” while serving the requisite riotous rock moments in “Shit Mirror” and “Ahead of Ourselves.” The sound is unmistakably Nails, but the music carefully recalibrates the mix of industrial, ambient, punk, and synth pop interests that have powered the band over the last 30 years. Unlike the aughts records, which were studious, necessary refinements of the band’s original concept that seemed necessary after the cliff jump that was The Fragile, Bad Witch sounds like the work of a band looking backward but also forward.
This fall’s Cold and Black and Infinite Tour smartly translates this interest in both history and trailblazing on stage, as this past week of New York City shows evidenced. The Jesus and Mary Chain is the support act. The American industrial vets and the Scottish noise rockers seem like an unusual pairing until you realize both Reznor and the JAMC’s Reid brothers derive the strength in their music from the corrosion and decay of beautiful sounds. JAMC makes pretty melodies sound hard; Nails makes harshness seem pretty. In concert, the gap between songs like JAMC’s peppy “I Hate Rock n Roll” and NIN’s crass “Closer” seems small because both bands treat the stage like a ritualistic celebration of the power of electric guitars. In concert, Nine Inch Nails is dizzying, prickly, sensual. The back catalogue is dense, and the band dives far. One night fans were treated to the whole of 1992’s Broken EP. Another was peppered with deep cuts from The Fragile. Cold and Black and Infinite prominently features the Lost Highway soundtrack gem “The Perfect Drug,” which Reznor ducked playing live for 20 years because he hated it. The only setlist guarantees are the early highlight “Closer,” the setlist ender “Head Like a Hole,” and the encore “Hurt.” There’s no predicting what happens in between. You might get a five-minute electronic noise freakout, as the band does turning Atticus Ross loose at the end of Year Zero’s “The Great Destroyer” or a wild solo from drummer Ilan Rubin. The possibilities are endless.
As Trent Reznor uses Bad Witch and Cold and Black and Infinite to survey his own group’s past, present, and future, he’s also examining the past, present, and future of electronic music. Openers for the tour are cherry-picked from different corners of dance music history. Some nights get capable shimmering house and ambient music from British producer Daniel Avery, who worked with Nails multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Cortini as DA-AC last year on the blissed-out collaborative seven-inch single “Sun Draw Water.” Others get funky dance pop from Gabe Gurnsey of the DFA Records duo Factory Floor. The wiry dance punkers HMLTD play a few nights, as does the Oakland darkwave act The Soft Moon and the genre-hopping psych and trip-hop group Death in Vegas. Cold and Black and Infinite is an exercise in great taste. It’s also proof that you can make vibrant, forward-thinking records without answering to a label or pandering to trends, that you can sell out sizable rooms 30 years into your career. Some bands stay alive by rehashing the hits. Others stay adjacent to whatever’s new and popping. Nine Inch Nails is too cool to play that game, too smart to collapse into self-parody, and too damned resilient to ever be counted out.