When Trent Reznor plays arena shows, he usually has a quiet spot to go hide from the crowd and rest his voice. Not so when the Nine Inch Nails founder played the Troubadour on Tuesday in celebration of his industrial rock act’s comeback album, “Hesitation Marks.”
“We usually have several places that we can go onstage,” he joked. “Back there I’m usually relaxing, catching up on ‘Breaking Bad.’”
At this point in his decades-long career, no one would blame him for taking time to kick back with Walter and Jesse. Many fans thought he’d done just that after retiring the NIN name in 2009 (of course, a “break” for him included scoring two creepy David Fincher films and starting a new project with his wife, the ambient band How To Destroy Angels).
But with the seething, inventive “Hesitation Marks,” Reznor’s back at what he does best – grafting the most up-to-the-minute electronics with bombed-out rock guitars and a catalog of the ways lovers fail each other. The 500-capacity confines of the Troubadour offered a whole new way of looking at contemporary NIN – this dystopian stadium act’s songs are surprisingly handmade and intimate up close.
Regardless of how you feel about “Hesitation Marks” or about Reznor’s perpetually-pained-deep-into-his-40s M.O., Tuesday’s Troubadour show was perhaps some of the most sheer sound that’s ever hit that stage. Some bands downscale at these sorts of underplays, but NIN – a quintet of black-clad performers, including Reznor – felt every bit the arena act in there.
Drummer Ilan Rubin’s double-time pummel could pivot to beat-gridded precision in the same song; Josh Eustis (of the late, lamented Telefon Tel Aviv) played basslines that sounded like they were dipped in butane and set on fire. And as always, there was Reznor, gym-beefy and sweating rivulets before the first tune was over.
In the ‘90s, Nine Inch Nails was one of the first American bands to reach superstardom using truly experimental electronic sounds. So now that danceable electronic music is the default mode of American pop (and most of its underground sounds), one might wonder how Reznor would respond on his new music.
Fans obviously adored the classic, rock-driven aspects of Tuesday’s show. But its best moments came when Reznor seemed in conversation with today's drugged-up electronics and nihilistically pretty noise.
A long-form take on “Disappointed” had the pings and groans of late-night Berlin club culture – maybe the most direct attempt at dance music in his band’s career. Ringed in austere blue light, Reznor stood alone on “Find My Way,” where he sang an atypically major-key, almost gospel-derived melody in a fog of mood-shifting synth pads and little spatters of drum machines.
Sound design has always been his best talent (it’s no accident that his scores for “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with collaborator Atticus Ross had some of his most interesting compositions). His performances from “Hesitation Marks” on Tuesday proved that he’s still at the vanguard of progressive machine music – and he can also make it emotionally meaningful.
But if fans wanted minimal club music, they’d go to the minimal club. They went to the Troubadour because no band can call up a wraithful wail of noise like NIN.
“Piggy” still sounds like the brutal Japanese experimentalist Merzbow trying to play a sleazebag Midwest strip club; the 7/8-time “March of the Pigs” had the backbeat of ‘80s hardcore while “Terrible Lie” used arty coldwave synths to call up a primal sense of betrayal. Even the Troubadour bartenders briefly stopped serving drinks so they could take their own cellphone videos of “Head Like A Hole.” Who could blame them?
The band closed with a wounded, lushly spacious take on “Hurt,” which the Associated Press memorably and incorrectly described in a recent review as a Johnny Cash cover (though to be fair, Cash sort of posthumously owns that song now).
But the night’s most telling move came earlier, when NIN played “Came Back Haunted,” the lead single from “Hesitation Marks.” The song began as a hissing, echo-sodden standoff. But when the big lights kicked on in the chorus, they showed the band alone before the Troubadour’s stark black-brick background: just five guys in total arena-rock command of this weird, challenging music.
That’s why you play small shows with nowhere to hide.
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