FYF Fest ended with a new beginning.
Headlining the main stage Sunday night, Nine Inch Nails played its first “real show,” as frontman Trent Reznor put it, in nearly three years to close out the annual music festival in Exposition Park.
But as he brought his influential industrial-rock outfit back to life (following a warm-up gig last week in Bakersfield), Reznor wanted the crowd at FYF to know he hadn’t been sitting on a beach since 2014. He and his bandmates had been in the studio, he said — “hiding out, watching the world go crazy.”
You could hear the effects in their furious 90-minute set, which mixed vivid renditions of old hits like “March of the Pigs” and “Head Like a Hole” with exasperated tunes from a pair of EPs the group released ahead of its return to the road.
In the new “Less Than,” Reznor railed against a clumsy yet arrogant authority figure — “Offend and pretend and defend and demand my compliance,” he sang over a menacing disco-punk beat — while “The Hand That Feeds,” from 2005, revived a Bush-era critique of blood spilled “in the name of the holy and the divine.”
He seemed certain the protest still applied. (Other acts on Sunday’s bill touched on politics as well, including the bumptious rap duo Run the Jewels and Solange, who sang gorgeously about institutional racism.)
Some of what Reznor observed during the band’s hiatus hit closer to home, particularly the death of his friend and collaborator David Bowie. On Sunday, Reznor said he’d asked Bowie’s camp if he could rework a song from the late singer’s final album, 2016’s “Blackstar”; he thought the exercise might help him put Bowie’s death “in context,” he explained.
The result was a haunted cover of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which Reznor sang (along with what sounded like Bowie’s recorded vocals) amid a weave of intricate synth patterns.
Nine Inch Nails — now a five-man operation with the addition of Reznor’s film-music partner, Atticus Ross — managed more moments of tenderness. There was “Something I Can Never Have,” a stately piano ballad from the band’s 1989 debut, “Pretty Hate Machine.”
And there was the late-’90s “The Frail,” which in retrospect clearly heralded Reznor and Ross’s award-winning scores for “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Delicate and slow-moving, both were far from the norm for an outdoor festival set, a clear indication of Reznor’s confidence in the devotion of his audience — and also in his players’ impressive control.
Indeed, Nine Inch Nails may actually have sounded too good on Sunday; more than once, I found myself wanting the band to cut loose from Reznor’s exacting arrangements, to balance all the tension with a bit of release.
Or at least I did until the group got to “Closer.” Still the band’s biggest song more than two decades after it came out, this slithering goth-funk jam — a masterpiece of texture and groove — sounded as sexy and as audacious as it ever has at FYF.
Maybe more audacious, in fact. For all the talk about how coarse pop culture has grown in recent years, it’s virtually impossible to imagine “Closer,” with its unprintable lyric about animal desire, making it onto the radio today as the song did in 1994.
Even in a world gone crazy, a prudish instinct abides — yet another outrage to fuel Reznor’s disgust.