Every once in a while, a band comes along with an album that completely rocks your perception. And then that band puts out an album that makes you wonder if they completely forgot everything they did that people enjoyed. Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth is one of the latter. The awkward vocals and stripped-down instrumentals we worshipped as part of NIN's raw, uncomplicated style now come out hackneyed and stilted. Trent Reznor's voice is seething with emotion, but the target is vague.
The main problem with this album is that we don't get what we expect. I had been following Reznor's Q&A responses on his website, and he had been quoting bands such as the Liars, Gang of Four, and Pere Ubu as influences during his creative process. I was praying to whichever god, entity, void, or appropriate mythos that this album would be dance-punk oriented, in what would have been an amazing display of musical maturity and evolution. Unfortunately, this was not the case. First single "The Hand That Feeds" is hardly representative of the rest of the album, but if it had been, I would have been a happy man.
Part of my disdain for this album is that Nine Inch Nails went back to their old style of going synthesizer overboard, instead of capitalizing on the sound developed during The Fragilewhere they used real guitars, drums, and other instruments to give the album a more fluid, "fragile" feel. While this may have been a one-shot concept, I pine for that sort of reality of musicianship instead of the drum machines and Apple GarageBand antics that characterize this album. I realize that using digital tools allow more creative freedom, but a lot of feeling is lost when the only analog component in the whole mess is Reznor's wavering falsetto.
Furthermore, every instrument on this album sounds exactly the same as the last. There's nothing new to hear. Everything sounds like something Reznor has done before. I want creativity. I want something that can outdo a heartbeat as a bass drum. With Teeth feels like the same old thing we were hearing on Broken and other old albums.
The album has its highlights, though. Reznor's minimalist compulsions and control of composition come together well in "Right Where It Belongs." The swing beat and the melancholy lyrics actually mesh well, which is a change from the general mismatching of sonic sentiment and lyrical intent. The roaring crowd noise is excessive, but that can be overlooked for the sake of the rest of the piece.
On the rest of the tracks, the sound alternates unpredictably. "Beside You in Time" is an indecipherable soup of reverb slapped on top of two four-line verses. This is a pretty weak song for a "lyrically oriented" album (Reznor's words), and that's even forgetting that the damn thing goes on for five and a half minutes.
The exception to all of these rules is, ironically, "The Hand That Feeds," which should have served as the conceptual jumping point rather than its culmination. The dance beat and unusually driving bass line are examples of the energy Reznor puts into his morose diatribes that should be focused toward livelier, yet equally gloomy songs. The song suffers only from the awkward chorus at the end, which probably had more to do with Reznor running out of ideas that anything else.
You'd think that after a three-year break and a live album to pump fans for cash, Nine Inch Nails could have yielded a little something more than this. But for the time being, we're stuck with the toothless With Teeth.