Saturday, June 06, 2009

Summertime Rolls: Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction at the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA (Part 1)

Short answer: Jane's wins in a rout — and in what was probably an unfair fight. Here's the background. I saw Nine Inch Nails back in 1994 on the Downward Spiral tour. It was at the Nautica Theater in Cleveland; the seats were removed to create a giant general admission pit; and the Nautica's location in "the Flats" — flush up against the Cuyahoga River — sets up a terrific vibe of post-industrial decay, with rusty bridges and rotting barges supplying a suitable background for Trent Reznor's aesthetic. More to the point, I was young, in college, and angry, and to this point Nine Inch Nails had turned out only two albums and one EP's worth of "woe is me, woe to you, my soul is black, so go screw" rock-electronica.

Jump ahead to 2009. The Comcast Center, once the Tweeter Center, is — as it sounds — a heavily cross-promoted venue in the "summer concert" style. This place, along with its 30 or more cookie-cutter counterparts across the country, is nested in a woodsy, off-the-beaten-path locale. It has the usual Pavilion and Lawn seating, which in 2009 means they've gone and replaced most of the Lawn with seats just like those in the Pavilion, except that the Lawn seats aren't sheltered and are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is no pit in the Pavilion, no intimacy anywhere, and not really any sound in the Lawn seats, which is where the three of us are sitting.

My frame of mind is this: I never saw Jane's Addiction, but I love and have canonized the two studio albums from 20 years ago. I think Jane's absolutely rawks and have been fired up for weeks to see them. As for Nine Inch Nails, I tuned out after The Downward Spiral. Nothing I've heard since that album has particularly interested me. I consulted SR, a great old friend and longtime devotee of the band in advance of the concert: what should I buy? SR's answer, as longtime devotee of Nine Inch Nails, was (and I paraphrase) pretty much everything (except for what I could get for free on the NIN website, and isn't Trent Reznor great for doing that, and so on). In anticipation of the show, I put Jane's in heavy rotation and blew off any plans I had to cram the last dozen years of Nine Inch Nails.

Part of this is that "my soul is black" can surely be meaningful to a person in a particular state of mind, but that state of mind is necessarily ephemeral. If it's not, then you're truly in a "downward spiral," and good luck to you. My state of mind these days is that things are generally good, and if and when they're not, I don't need an over-earnest faux-artiste (yeah: you, too, Win Butler) to articulate the sentiment for me. And so I was bracing myself to be curmudgeonly and irritable when Nine Inch Nails took the stage.

Four thick paragraphs of set-up — or maybe disclaimers or explanations I think I owe to folks I know like SR who think the world of Nine Inch Nails — and only now I'm getting to the show. So be it. You don't read these posts because you crave punchy prose. Curtains up! >

Trent Reznor has filled out. He doesn't look like a starved, patchy rat anymore. He has more of a Henry Rollins-crossed-with-thickness-of-middle-age body, and his (naturally) black clothes are well-tailored and well-cut. He has a nice, neatly-coiffed head of hair. His appearance gives the impression that any presentation of onstage chaos has been blocked out and planned weeks in advance. In short, Reznor is seething with competence, rather than passion. The band is a straight four-piece, with vocals, guitar, bass and drums, but there are pianos and keyboards scattered on the stage, too. And what we get is basically a straight-ahead rock performance, with the occasional interstitial segment of electronica.

The crowd's reaction to Nine Inch Nails' performance is, I think, telling. Most everyone in the Lawn seats is carrying on a conversation during songs. This speaks to Trent's inability to hold our attention, and also to the fact that the sound isn't traveling particularly well. The sound issue is important: what distinguishes Nine Inch Nails is sound and production values, and if you want to be specific, the dual gimmicks of stop-start and quiet-loud. When, from where you're sitting, "start" and "loud" aren't all that powerful, these gimmicks falter.

A live performance by a group like Nine Inch Nails is necessarily a dicey proposition, because what "art" we can fairly attribute to Nine Inch Nails lies in the carefully manicured production, the layering of dozens of tracks, the love and attention that Trent gives to every buzz and lilt that lands on a master tape. Contrast the often gag-worthy lyrics ("I built it up now I take it apart climbed up real high now fall down real far") and the guitar hooks, which are nothing special and are generally distinctive only for their weightiness and timbre. The problem here is that the live performance with the four-piece band relies on the vocals and the hooks. Urk.

So the crowd chatters and yawns, and on those brief occasions when vox and guitar give way to a brief spasm of Nine Inch Nails-style electronica, the crowd stirs and cheers the band. Worth noting, too, that I'm apparently not the only attendee who tuned out after Spiral. Whenever Trent dips deep into his back catalogue — for, say, "Gave Up," "Piggy, "March of the Pigs, or "Wish" — the crowd's enthusiasm level surges, only to fall back again when the band returns to this century's material. And what is more, I feel this, and maybe it's a matter of perception and bias more than anything, but I really do feel it: the band itself seems to kick it up about three notches when it plays these old songs. They attack the classics full-throttle, and generally to great effect, whereas the songs in between seem (again, at least to me) to be delivered with a kind of listlessness. Strange, I think, because usually it's the reverse: usually the band is all-too-enthusiastic about its new material, and it's apparent from the soulless rendition of the "old stuff" that they find it tiresome.

I find myself increasingly aggrieved over the selection of songs from the earlier (i.e., familiar) releases. What — no "Terrible Lie?" On what basis, Trent, do you decide to exclude "Terrible Lie?" And you ransack the Broken EP, and all you can find is "Wish" and "Gave Up?" Pfft. You'd have done more justice to Broken with "Suck," or even the "(You're So) Physical" cover. These choices are troubling to me.

And now it's time to discuss the blackness and anger. Some of it is well-cast, fine-tuned, and delivered from some interesting perspective: I've always admired the cyber-alienation theme of "The Becoming," and it's no coincidence that in the entirety of the set it is this song, which documents a soul-destroying mechanization of self, that best incorporates the band's signature electronic elements into the straight-ahead rock. "It won't give up/It wants me dead/God damn this noise inside my head" is especially catchy — the closest Reznor has approached (and will approach, based on what I've seen) to "Bow down before the one you serve/You're going to get what you deserve," lyrical heights he reached, tragically, in his first single, twenty years ago.

Twenty years is a long time to be serving up this blather about Blackness, and it's an aesthetic that, for the reasons I described above, doesn't lend itself to holding the same cohort of fans over the long haul — simply because the sentiment grows wearisome over time. Your best bet, then, if you're Trent, is to pick off successive generations of rock fans as they hit the Blackness Stage of Life, then set them free thereafter. If they don't come back, as the old bromide goes, they were never yours to begin with, and you can use the ensuing feelings of betrayal and loneliness to nourish the next album's Blackness.

At some point I wish out loud that Nine Inch Nails would play its cover of "Dead Souls," and this leads into a conversation with my friend KL about Joy Division. Well, not so much a conversation, because there is live music playing, I'm monologuing, and KL, as is his practice when he goes to concerts (even though it was not really necessary here), has installed earplugs to keep his ears from ringing afterward, so he probably hears only half of what I'm saying. Joy Division is, of course, the unattainable ideal for Nine Inch Nails. If they were contemporaries, I'd use the Mozart/Salieri analogy. Joy Division had the advantages of masterful instrumentation from creatively coequal bandmates, a brilliant producer in the studio in Martin Hannett, and genuinely nihilistic and soul-destroying lyrics. Joy Division's recordings were groundbreaking in their production values, and yet when all Hannett's bells and whistles were necessarily shunted aside for the band's live performances, the band was still able to deliver the goods with an intensity, an immediacy, a desperation and menace that Nine Inch Nails can only dream of having. KL nods in agreement. I can't say for sure he's not patronizing me (he is, himself, an insufferable rock critic), but I gather from his body language that he won't be taking up Nine Inch Nails' cause against Joy Division or anyone else after this show.

There comes a point where Trent Reznor means to introduce a song that is particularly important to him. He says he locked himself away by the ocean for a period of time, ostensibly to write songs, but, he says, "what I really wanted to do was kill myself." He has clearly crafted his presentation of the story to give it maximum rhetorical kick, but given the way he said these words, I don't doubt his sincerity. Trent winds his way through the rest of the story — he only managed to write one song during this lowest period, and it was "The Fragile." Then the band plays "The Fragile," which, to me, is hardly noteworthy or compelling. Not when, ever since my rant to KL ten minutes before, I have had "Dead Souls," "Atmosphere," Side B of Closer, and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on my mind. This isn't fair, of course: Ian Curtis did commit suicide, and those songs are the very documentation of his downward spiral, which found depths Reznor, to his credit and great benefit, didn't reach. Reason #125, then, why I'm not being fair to Nine Inch Nails in this review.

And indeed, KL told me on the phone yesterday that Nine Inch Nails shouldn't be judged against Joy Division — it should be judged against its real musical progenitors, Psychic TV and Skinny Puppy (in his view). But I'm inclined to judge Nine Inch Nails against Joy Division for two reasons: (1) the high production values of their recordings (see above), and (2) their emphasis on interior terror (see below). Most of the "scary" acts in rock serve up a theatrical kind of "scary": Sabbath sings about the Devil; Gene Simmons spits blood; Alice Cooper is, well, Alice Cooper. Bauhaus, too, pointed to objects, images, legends in its efforts to frighten. The theatricality of metal and Goth is enjoyable. It's a horror show: if you're at all scared, you're scared smiling.

By contrast, Joy Division is the only band I can think of that is well and truly terrifying. I'm actually afraid of what could happen to me if I listen to them too much. If a child of mine got into Joy Division as a teenager, I would confiscate the recordings. And if you know me, that says something. What makes Joy Division so terrifying is that the terror is achieved by introspection. Joy Division doesn't point to something awful: it creates it. Ian Curtis found it in himself and committed it to tape, and the musical fit — the mood, the atmosphere — that his friends and bandmates provided for Curtis's lyrical compositions was uncanny. Nine Inch Nails has chosen to swear off Goth-style theatricality in favor of Joy Division-style interior terror. That's a very ambitious choice, and good for Trent for making it. After all, anybody can put on eye liner and bite a fake-blood capsule. The problem is that this higher prize is very, very hard to attain, and I don't think Trent Reznor has enough going for him to get there.

This is my very, very long way of saying that Nine Inch Nails did not move me. Not like they did when I was twenty years old in a general-admission pit in Cleveland, when the band was fronted by a mangy, probably strung-out industrial rocker clawing desperately at a living. Not like they did before he set forth his mission statement, which is to be 21st century America's Joy Division — as if that is even possible in this time and place, and for a one-man auteur who apparently has it together enough to book a tour of the nation's built-for-Buffett Comcast Center venues alongside Jane's Addiction. Nine Inch Nails has recorded some terrific songs. They should not try to be the band they're trying to be, because it's not working.

Jane's Addiction in the next post.

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