Trauma has been very, very good to Jonathan Davis, the voice and tortured soul of Korn. He didn’t squander his memories of a miserable childhood and a persecuted adolescence on some talk-show appearance or tabloid crime. Instead, he has channeled them into the band that established the new-metal sequel to grunge. Where the Seattle crowd was mired in self-loathing, Korn insist that hating yourself doesn’t mean you can’t be vicious to others. By Korn’s reckoning, a victim can lash out not just at metal’s usual oppressors — brutal parents, turncoat friends, despotic authority figures — but at anyone in his path, because he hurts so bad. Victimization becomes a license to ill, a rationale so popular that Korn have been able to spin off franchises like the Family Values Tour and Limp Bizkit (which holds Korn’s missing sense of humor).
Muttering, stomping, kicking a hip-hop beat, Korn’s music makes the psychodrama hit home. Their favorite device — a high guitar line circling above a grinding bass — leaves Davis’ voice sounding stranded and desperate until the power chords arrive. And the lyrics, detailing sexual abuse and other grim scenarios, promise wrenching honesty to justify their self-absorption. But with Issues, Korn’s fourth studio album, the band moves from catharsis to careerism.
They work hard to add melodies, mostly big, grunge-redux choruses, as if they want to be Soundgarden or, piling on static and distortion, Nine Inch Nails. Yet there’s a sense, subtle but unmistakable, that the band has started to seek a formula. The lyrics revisit thrice-plowed ground: father-son warfare, borderline psychosis, begging, falling, rape, beatings, pain. Davis used to blurt private details alongside general complaints, but Issues stays with non-revelations like, “There’s so much shit around me” and “We crumble under pressure.”
Korn’s new subject — and it’s not promising — is fame. Davis flip-flops between moaning about the hollowness of it all and kissing up to fans. Despite its downtuned guitars and Pink Floyd chime sounds, “4 U” is only a guitar solo away from a power ballad: “You will never know what I’ve done for you.” Celebrity may be Davis’ big conundrum at the moment. But Korn’s fans, looking for songs that recognize and cauterize their own troubles, would be fully justified in deciding that his fame is simply not their problem.