Trent Reznor just celebrated his 44th birthday. He’s engaged to a 27 year-old Filipino model. He’s got pet dogs. He doesn’t like fur, and lends his voice to PETA commercials to say as much. In person, he’s friendly, but shy and pensive. And yet somehow, when he screams “I’m gonna burn this whole world down!” into a microphone, he still sounds like he might try something stupid.
Reznor and the three stand-ins he plays with these days – Robin Finck of the new Guns N’ Roses on guitar, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass, and Ilan Rubin on percussion – brought their act to the Charter One Pavilion last Friday night for the Chicago leg of Nine Inch Nails’ farewell tour. Their two hour, strobetastic set, accompanied by a near impenetrable amount of artificial fog, was spectacular in the most literal sense of the word, a fitting send-off for the guy who popularized industrial rock.
The set began with The Fragile’s “Somewhat Damaged” followed by Pretty Hate Machine’s “Terrible Lie”. Tracks like Terrible Lie – one of the heaviest industrial selections in NIN’s catalogue – are monuments to the fact that Reznor somehow pulled an entire generation of Poison-heads and GNR lackeys out of their “Sweet Child O’ Mine” stupors to swallow lyrics like “Hey god, I don’t really know who I am/ In this world of piss.” If you found yourself head-banging to Linkin Park singing the exact same thing, you’d feel like a total asshole, but Reznor makes it moderately terrifying.
The majority of the night’s 21 songs were off of NIN’s first three albums – 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, 1992’s Broken, and 1994’s Downward Spiral, including a full seven songs off the latter. Much like Radiohead’s refusal to play “Creep” live, Reznor has left TDS’s “Closer” noticeably absent from all setlists on this tour, but it wasn’t particularly missed. “March Of The Pigs” and “Burn” (originally off the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack), with frenetic guitars and ferocious bass drum-rolls, come across harder than anything on NIN’s post-Downward Spiral work, and “Closer”, which borders on electro-pop, would have felt out of place. Reznor probably still wants to fuck you like an animal, but he’s currently preoccupied with burning the whole world down.
NIN’s post-90s work has been far more inconsistent, and “Survivalism”, off 2007’s Year Zero, was the evening’s weakest offering. “I got my propaganda I got revisionism/I got my violence in hi-def ultra-realism” is one of NIN’s more vacuous choruses; it felt dated in 2007, and it feels even more dated now. Whereas 1997’s NIN-David Bowie collaboration, “I’m Afraid of Americans”, with lyrics of “Johnny wants a brain, Johnny wants to/ Suck on a coke/ Johnny wants a woman, Johnny wants/ To think of a joke/ Johnny’s in America”, is sardonic and incisive, “Survivalism” just sounds whiney. Might be best to leave the America-bashing to a Brit.
As he’s done in other shows of late, Reznor paused before one of the night’s last songs, The Fragile’s “Day The World Went Away”, to introduce the band and thank the crowd for supporting his quest to get Eric De La Cruz a new heart. The closing number, Pretty Hate Machine’s “Head Like A Hole”, fittingly ended the show in a flourish of hard-rocking industrial nostalgia. For an electronic metal band, Nine Inch Nails could always bring it live, and Friday was no exception. Here’s hoping someone else’s transplant need summons Reznor and company out of retirement.