Trent Reznor always was a perfectionist, laboring over his final mixes with a fine-tooth comb, a belabored process that inevitably led to long gaps between albums. About five years a piece, actually, a wait that was sustainable between his 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, and his 1994 breakthrough, The Downward Spiral; a wait, considering the expectations, that was understandable between that record and its 1999 sequel, The Fragile; yet it was a wait that was a little bewildering and frustrating between that record and its long-gestating follow-up, With Teeth. The Fragile was a grandiose, indulgent double album, dense enough to alienate fairweather fans while making advocates of those with enough time, patience, and fanaticism to listen to it repeatedly until it all made sense. It may not have pleased everybody, but it seemed like a record that necessitated half a decade to construct, and arrived with an appropriate sense of drama. That's not the case with With Teeth, which appeared in the spring of 2005 with the requisite deluge of press but without the sense of breathless anticipation that greeted The Fragile. Part of that was changing times -- fans who were 25 in 1999 were now 30 and weren't following pop music as closely -- but it's also true that the double-disc set whittled his audience down to its core, diminishing Nine Inch Nails' stature somewhat. They still had their cult and still won accolades from those convinced that artists who were important in 1995 were still important in 2005, but NIN seems not only out of step but diminished in 2005. Sure, Rick Rubin had Johnny Cash sing "Hurt," but Reznor's recordings seemed to have less impact on modern music than ever. His soundalikes vanished, his long-abandoned protégé Marilyn Manson turned the corner from self-parody to college lecturer, his romanticized goth morphed into Hot Topic stores and Evanescence. Not that any of this mattered one bit to Reznor. Instead of grabbing the gold ring when he had a chance in 1995, he squirreled himself away in his New Orleans house, recording obsessively, and according to some interviews conducted around the release of With Teeth, succumbing to alcohol addiction. He consciously turned away from stardom, along with anything happening in contemporary pop, so he could tinker in the studio. That lead to the obsessive, insular The Fragile, and that same impulse drives the sleek, streamlined, diamond-hard With Teeth.
Quite frankly, this is the record that NIN should have released if Reznor had wanted to capitalize on the success of The Downward Spiral. It's loud and angry, doesn't skimp on hooks, and is heavy on both sexy robotic dance beats and crashing rock rhythms (some supplied by everybody's favorite drummer, Dave Grohl, but not that you'd know it from reading the CD; the chintzy packaging not only has no credits, it has no booklet) -- all things that made "Closer" an alt-rock classic. But for all the surface similarities to his past albums, there is a palpable difference in tone and approach on With Teeth. This is the work of a craftsman, a musician who meticulously assembles his work by layering details so densely, there's never a moment on the record where something isn't roiling under the surface, where something isn't added to the mix. He's good at this, though. With Teeth is an impressive achievement technically and the music is generally strong, yet there's a nagging problem -- namely, there's nothing new here. It's not that Reznor is recycling himself -- he's far too compulsive a craftsman for that -- but he's not pushing himself, either, preferring to work within the box he created himself ten years ago. Consequently, the music sounds as if it comfortably could have been released in 1996, the time when Reznor's style of music was at its popular peak. There's nothing wrong with that -- plenty of rock and pop musicians are craftsmen, working the same sound and finding interesting variations within it -- but there's something awkward about an industrial craftsman, or at least as how it's practiced by Reznor. His biggest problem is that while he shows considerable skill, even subtlety, in his music, the tortured sentiments of his lyrics are frozen in amber. They're eternally adolescent and they sound juvenile, even embarrassing, coming from a man on the verge of his 40th birthday. These words work when sung by a young man, when they're sung with a sense of urgency, but "urgency" is not a word that can be associated with NIN, even on a record like this that takes great pains to sound visceral and alive. Reznor is too insulated, too shut out from the outside world, too unconcerned with pleasing anybody but himself to make anything close to urgent. Without that sense of hunger, his music doesn't have mass appeal, leaving it to the hardcore who appreciate his sense of craft and construction, listeners who are eager to listen to the album enough times to memorize the details. In short, the same listeners who had the patience to learn how to love The Fragile will learn how to love With Teeth.