The moment when Trent Reznor became a rock star, and not just a future Jeopardy question (“Kvetching Keyboardists for $800, Alex”), was in 2002 when Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails’s 1994 single, Hurt. Not only did the Man in Black draw out the pathos in Reznor’s lyric, Cash’s halting, tender performance contrasted with Reznor’s youthful tendency toward theatrically overblown self-pity. But the kid actually did write great songs – even if, pre-Cash, the only people who recognized it were teenage shut-ins playing first-person-shooter video games and/or shrugging on black trenchcoats.
When Reznor announced a hiatus for NIN in 2008 it was like getting an invitation for your high-school reunion – an unexpected jolt that makes painfully clear how long it’s been since you were a bratty goth. Reznor evidently felt it too; The Slip, NIN’s last album, was full of rage, but at his own flaws. “Once I start, I cannot stop myself,” he grunted.
Now, at 47, Reznor will soon be closer to Cash’s age circa Hurt than to his own when he originally wrote it, so it’s not hard to imagine why Reznor may have thought his advancing middle age necessitated a new brand. He didn’t go far afield, however. How To Destroy Angels consists of his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and his long-time collaborators Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan.
A good chunk of their full-length debut, Welcome Oblivion, sounds like the moodiest parts of The Slip, electro and acid-techno sounds with hushed vocals issuing zen koans for really bummed-out monks. If it were faster, On The Wing could have been a rave track the Brits went crazy for in the early ’90s. Between that and brilliantly moody instrumentals like Recursive Self-Improvement and Hallowed Ground, you could lop off a few tracks and pass the result off as a NIN EP.
But it’s Maandig’s voice that gets the most exposure, and when she sings, you understand Trent’s dilemma. Sonically, she casts a mildly compelling spell in the lone acoustic track, Ice Age, but otherwise, her singing is the least memorable thing on offer. How Long is the closest Welcome Oblivion comes to pop, but its empty bombast exposes Maandig’s inexpressiveness – and underscore Reznor’s main strength: As overwrought as his vocals can be, all that sturm und drang serves a purpose. His emoting colours in the lines, adding a touch of humanity where the music is otherwise bleak and frosty – and when his voice appears here, it still does.
The angry teens still seething quietly inside his grown-up fans will never say no to another Head Like a Hole or Survivalism, but even if he never gives us another one, we can certainly embrace a less scenery-chewing Trent Reznor. Just not an absent one.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Johnny Marr (Warner Music)
From his days with the Smiths through stints with Electronic, Modest Mouse and the The, Johnny Marr has been the perfect post-punk guitar hero, one whose genius has less to do with flashy leads than with tuneful, supportive rhythm work. Sadly, being a guy who shines brightest by staying in the background is usually poison when it comes to solo projects. What keeps The Messenger afloat is the way it wraps Marr’s plain-John vocals in layer upon layer of guitar counterpoint. Within that sea of harmony, Marr’s melodies prove so buoyant that even lyrics as leaden as “Her smiles are miles of metaphor” can’t sink them. J.D. Considine
Graveyard Novelas EP
Mocky (Heavy Sheet Music)
Messing with the R&B template is a right and necessary thing to do, especially with hip hop having essentially staged a hostile takeover of it in the ’90s. On his fifth major release, Mocky proves his facility with the barren echo chambers and auto-tuned come-ons of recent success d’estimes such as The Weeknd. But his pop chops are the foundation. Make You Rich and All These Things For You, rise above the production on the strength of buoyant, wispy vocals from Hilary Gay, but also, and most especially, because of Mocky’s melodic acuity. Imagine that – not only is the reverb knob turned up to eleven, but you can hum the tunes, too. Dave Morris
Yoko Hirota, piano (Centrediscs)
In describing the abstract art that inspired his solo piano piece, Asagao, François Morel remarks on its “lack of nostalgia for a figurative model,” and the phrase suits both Morel’s sonorous music and the timbral sensitivity with which pianist Yoko Hirota approaches it. Some of the works on this disc are at least obliquely representative, however, from Brian Current’s virtuosic Sungods to Brian Cherney’s Nachtstücke, where one suspects a subtle nostalgia for the intimate salon concert. We marvel at Hirota’s dazzling precision in Sungods, but something less prismatic in Nachtstücke would not go amiss: fewer facets, more curves. Elissa Poole
Night Visions (Deluxe Edition)
Imagine Dragons (Interscope/KIDinaKORNER)
Not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Last year, Imagine Dragons burst out of the Las Vegas club scene on the strength of the majestically infectious single It’s Time, and it’s hard not to take the arena-ready sound of Night Visions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Dragons’ formula isn’t especially complicated – easy rhymes, inspirational lyrics, chiming guitars, stomping rhythms and big refrains – but it’s remarkably effective, lending their best tunes the emotional uplift of a good car commercial. That’s particularly true of the bonus tracks that flesh out this Deluxe Edition; expect to hear America played repeatedly at election rallies. J.C.