Trent Reznor has always aspired to the artistic malleability of David Bowie, tweaking his sound and vision with each release while twisting his kaleidoscope of grays into different shades of anguish. Like the late Thin White Duke, he’s made missteps (his remix EPs never “fixed” anything, and his glitchy How to Destroy Angels space-pop detour could be his Tin Machine), but also like Bowie, he’s always regained his footing, funneling his anxieties into new teeth-gnashing horrorscapes. His soundtrack work in recent years with his Nine Inch Nails partner Atticus Ross has given him an outlet to experiment outside of his nom de synth-rock, forcing new vitality into his NIN outings of late for even harsher, more potent music.
His latest, the five-song EP Add Violence, contains all the aggression, abjection and self-loathing that solidified his position as alt-rock’s Original Angster but with the measured restraint of a man his age. Like Reznor’s early Nine Inch Nails work, it’s a mostly insular affair – only he and Ross are credited here, with two women singing backup on opener “Less Than” – and it’s the inherent loneliness that makes Add Violence compelling, especially when contrasted with last year’s Not the Actual Events EP, which sounded a little scattered despite guest shots from Daves Grohl and Navarro and Reznor’s wife and How to Destroy Angels partner Mariqueen Maandig.
The simplicity of the duo’s approach drives Add Violence from the start, as “Less Than” opens with a plinky, Depeche Mode–styled keyboard riff before Reznor’s voice wrests it into a catchy, chin-down single. “Welcome oblivion,” he sings at the end. “Did it fix what was wrong inside?” But since that feeling of nothingness, which Reznor has paid homage to on practically every release of his career, has never fixed anything, it becomes the third member of Nine Inch Nails on the rest of the EP.
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That isolated sensation overwhelms “Not Anymore,” one of the harder hitting and most self-deprecating tracks on Add Violence. “I won’t forget – I know who I am,” he sings. “No matter what, I know who I am/And what I’m doing this for … ” And then he screams, “Well, not anymore.” It’s vintage Reznor hostility, and it’s all the more cutting when sandwiched between the shadowy, ominous “This Isn’t the Place,” which could be a soul song if presented differently, and overdriven closing track “The Background World,” which opens with Reznor dejectedly scorning someone, “You left me here,” before eventually building to eight minutes of an overdriven synth loop, adding more and more distortion with each repeat, recalling Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP.
The only weak moment here is “The Lovers,” a blippy, meandering ballad of sorts that’s sometimes too mopey for its own good – even for Reznor – as he suffers an identity crisis (“I know who I am, right?”) and settles “into the arms of the lovers” before deciding, “I am free/Finally.” It slows down the momentum of what is an otherwise strong declaration of anxiety, one that, if he and Ross blew it out a little more into an album, could stand with the band’s best.