Trent Reznor was ahead of his time. Like nobody else in the 1980s, he heard the smoldering teen rage inside the blip and bleep of early synth-pop: Under all the Atari beats and shiny-shiny haircuts, there was an ordinary loser kid’s heart burning for vengeance against the world, and Reznor amped that sound into the full-blown sociopath New Wave splendor of Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and The Downward Spiral. No rock star had ever shown such a subtle appreciation for the dark side of Adam and the Ants, and no rock star had ever worn black leotards out of such deep inner conviction. On With Teeth, he makes his long-awaited comeback, with Dave Grohl on drums to help bang the Nine Inch Nails formula into nasty shape.
Once prolific, Reznor now labors over each album as if it were a five-year plan, finessing the sonic kinks for four years, eleven months, thirty days and twenty-two hours. Plus a couple of hours for lyrics, which he apparently composes by skimming the poems his fans leave on message boards. (“Oooh, ‘Sometimes I forget I’m alive’? I can use that one!”) On Teeth, he abandons the quiet piano diddles of The Fragile for pure aggro. The first half is basically Reznor saying, “You want a hit single? I’ll give you a hit single,” with simplistic, radio-ready sludge a la “The Hand That Feeds.” But the second half has Nine Inch Nails’ richest, heaviest music since Downward Spiral, with the “Billie Jean” drums of “Only,” the monolithic synth crunch of “Beside You in Time,” the Pixies-meet-Pere Ubu clang of “Getting Smaller.” It all builds to the one big “Hurt”-style piano ballad on the album, “Right Where It Belongs,” so mournful that Johnny Cash must be singing it in heaven. It’s vintage Nine Inch Nails: New Wave with a heart of darkness.