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Mariqueen Maandig and Trent Reznor arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 27, 2010, at the Sunset Plaza Hotel in West Hollywood, California. (Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup)
Mariqueen Maandig and Trent Reznor arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 27, 2010, at the Sunset Plaza Hotel in West Hollywood, California. (Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup)

DISC OF THE WEEK

Trent Reznor’s back, still all sturm und drang Add to ...

  • Title Welcome Oblivion
  • Artist How To Destroy Angels
  • Label Columbia/Sony
  • Genre Rock
  • Rating 3/4

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.

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