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Happy Nine Inch Nails Day! (New album release plus concert flashback: June 7, 2009 at Jones Beach)

September 3, 2013

Four years ago I went to see a show on what was the first (of what will probably be many) goodbye tours for Nine Inch Nails. NIN teamed up with Jane’s Addiction for the NIN|JA 2009 tour, in what was supposed to be NIN’s grand farewell and Jane’s reemergence onto the scene. The bands even structured it that way, in a rare case of the headliner (NIN) performing first, to say goodbye, then Jane’s coming on second, ushering in a new (old) era. Though Trent Reznor seemed pretty resolute in his desire to move on from his band – he was at a professional peak, winning an Academy Award for his score of The Social Network, and he was committed to his new band, How to Destroy Angels, formed with his beautiful wife Mariqueen Maandig – it should have come as no surprise that this end for NIN was only temporary. Especially after seeing their amazing performance that night at Jones Beach. Today marks the official return of Nine Inch Nails with the release of their new album Hesitation Marks, their first since 2008.

I haven’t heard the new album yet, but if early reviews can be believed it should be a very good one. Rolling Stone says that it is “one of [Reznor’s] best, combining the textural exploration on the 1999 double CD The Fragile, and the tighter fury of his 1994 master blast, The Downward Spiral.” Annie Zaleski of the A.V. Club concludes her review by saying that Reznor’s new outlook on life has resulted in a “huge boost to NIN’s creativity, and helped the group re-emerge as a relevant, vital, and still weird band.” For a band that’s been at it for close to 25 years, reemerging as relevant and vital is about all you could ask for. It seems that everyone agreesHesitation Marks is very good and extremely dark, a return to the band’s 1990s heyday, .

Lots of NIN fans must have been nervous to get new music from the band now. After all, could Reznor, a 48-year old father of two who has tasted mainstream success, bring the hate like he once did better than anyone? I was not one of those scared fans. To see NIN and Jane’s Addiction in 2009 – and specifically Reznor and Perry Farrell – is to know that despite the supposed retirement of the former band and resurrection of the latter, NIN/Reznor was still at the top of its game and Jane’s/Farrell was barely hanging on. With a backdrop of a sunny sky and ocean view above and beyond the Jones Beach amphitheater, it felt strange at first to try and take in a band as raw and gritty as NIN. Once the music began though, and the sun began to set … well, I’d say it was like 1994 all over again, but it was actually so much better than that. I recall Reznor vividly – dressed in all black, with an armband over his massive bicep and a close-cut haircut – looking like a soldier and tearing through his setlist like a man possessed. There was no easing into the show, no slow burn – Reznor and his bandmates screamed with all of the energy of a band half their ages, but with a pain that comes from years of experience. There was little in the way of special effects or extraneous talk – just good old fashioned thrashing. NIN played an incredible 21 songs or so (setlist and traditional review here), ending with a haunting version of “Hurt”, but it was the two songs prior to Hurt that were most emblematic of the show – crowd-pleasers “The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole”. The entire crowd – myself included – was deliriously singing and chanting along with these two favorites, on the heels of a set that was glorious from start to finish. Here is a video of Nine Inch Nails performing “Head Like a Hole” which should give you a flavor of the darkness and intensity of the show:

When it was all said and done, the sun had set on Nine Inch Nails (literally, though apparently not for good) and Jane’s Addiction could not have benefited from a better introduction to the stage. In between sets, I noted that if the entire show had been over right then it still would have been one of the best I’d ever been to, and seeing JA was just icing on the cake. Unfortunately, Farrell took the gift he’d been given by Reznor and squandered it. I don’t want to belabor the point – after all, today is a celebration – but JA did everything short of ruining a great show. They opened with very slow-building song “Three Days”, an 11-minute version that felt like 20. Farrell was everything that Reznor wasn’t – where the NIN frontman was all unbridled fury and rage, Farrell theatrically skipped and slinked along the stage, climbing speakers and seeming entirely out of touch with his audience. For years that has been his style, but it had always been accompanied by an unmistakably shrill voice that counterbalances his fey act. In 2009 he could no longer reach the octaves he did back when he started Lollapalooza in 1991. In fact, he’s miles from being the singer he once was. Several songs were performed in a lower key and others were simply mangled. It was a painful sight to see, like an athlete well past his prime trying to leap or run the way he once did when at his athletic peak. Having to follow Reznor – who has been around nearly as long but still on top of his game – only made Farrell look worse.  Almost as if the gods were conspiring against JA, it began to rain a bit. However, this actually worked to let a bit of tension out of the otherwise dull show. Though I actually considered leaving before the show ended, the final two songs – “Stop!” and “Jane Says” – redeemed the entire set. Farrell reached back for one last fastball and brought the crowd back to its feet.

It’s hard to believe that Nine Inch Nails – 24 years after the release of their incredible debut album Pretty Hate Machine – is still “creative, relevant and vital.” On the other hand, they’ve always been a cutting edge band and Reznor has always been an innovator, so if anyone could stay fresh at this stage of the game it would be him. It probably won’t be the album of the year, but a welcome addition to the NIN catalog is a good thing all the same.

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