Friday, September 4, 2009

#118. 'Sometimes I think I can see right through myself'

Nine Inch Nails "Only"

You might have noticed that I don't get too caught up in a song's lyrics when I do these reviews. There's a good reason for that, and I kind of covered it in an earlier entry, but I tend to look at the vocals more as a layer of instrumentation that happens to be based on words rather than as words arranged into a song. When lyrics are good they add to the song, but when the song sounds good as an instrumental it doesn't bother me if the lyrics aren't exactly good. You can probably thank Trent Reznor for that philosophy more than anyone else.

See, when I was younger I loved the first three Nine Inch Nails albums. I lied about my age to buy The Fragile soon after it was released (I was 14 and that fucking Advisory sticker meant I had to be 16 to purchase it without a parent. To this day I'm sure that the clerk thought that rule was bogus since there's no way 14 year old me would pass for 16...14 year old me rarely passed for 14) and listened to it constantly, but not in the way I would now. Being 14 meant that I was in the right mindset to really appreciate Reznor's lyrics but that the level of craft that went into the album went right over my head. I understood that this was quite different than a lot of the heavier stuff I assaulted my ears with at this point in my life but that didn't matter then, it was all about the lyrics then. It was the same deal with the previous 2 NIN albums, though The Downward Spiral never spoke to me for some reason, but in the 6 years between then and the release of With Teeth I came around to seeing Reznor for what he was: an excellent studio craftsman who hid that fact behind what could very well have been entries from his high school diary.

Even given that realization With Teeth was still a disappointment. It wasn't just that Reznor was regressing a bit from the more varied, textured work of The Fragile and making what amounted to Pretty Hate Machine part 2, but that he was doing it with the same level of craft I was used to. It was 13 angry pop-industrial songs, no variety or expanse just a solid mass of impeccably rendered retreads of "Head Like a Hole." I haven't revisited it outside of the singles since my initial listen to it back in 2005, but time hasn't been particularly kind to two of the three singles (at least in their original versions - the DFA remix of "The Hand That Feeds" is probably my favorite NIN-related thing this decade) so I doubt I'll have warmed up to their host album too much. All that said, at least he snuck in "Only," one of the oddest choices for a single this decade and all the better for it.

It strikes me as an odd choice mostly due to the fact that on the surface it's just a chorus with a great beat. The verses aren't so much verses as slightly structured rants with a few repetitions of key ideas thrown in, most of these being a bit more than the typical Reznorian angst miniatures, that only serve to give the song a sense of purpose outside of the chorus. That description sounds a bit thin for a song, let alone a single, but somehow Reznor makes it work. It won't surprise you that a big part of it is the production. Reznor doesn't do as much with the production on With Teeth as he does on his other albums, it's not the dense, layered excess of the best parts of either of its two predecessors, more like a refined, less varied version of Pretty Hate Machine, but it works perfectly in this context. There's an alien-ness to the overall sound that suits it's odd structure to a T, the harsh, bass heavy synths combined with the sharp, clean drums create a great bed for Reznor to work over. The icing on the cake, though is the guitar solos over the last part of the song. Nothing too complex, but the tone of the guitar, distorted to sound a bit like white noise but with a distinct edge to it, is a great effect.

Oddly enough though, the lyrics aren't anywhere near as bad as the past NIN singles. It might be a function of Reznor deciding to not go with a conventional, melodic verse and kind of running his mouth until he gets to the chorus and gives that his all. The effect is like a good musical crescendo, only with lyrics only as the music under them doesn't change. Sure, some of the lyrics themselves might be questionable, not a big fan of the second half of each chorus gratituously adding a fuck to the main line for instnace, but the stream of consciousness style works so much better than the hollow sloganeering that most of With Teeth boils down to.

Coming up tomorrow: Moody and french or the key to good soundtracks.

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