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May 17, 2005

Filed under: music»artists»nin

Album Review: With Teeth

For three minutes, With Teeth had me worried. The first track, "All the Love in the World," begins like an outtake from The Fragile: staggered synth beat, wandering piano, reserved vocals. Trent Reznor's voice cracks in the first verse, then recovers. Gradually, the song grows until it's good, but not great. And then, almost exactly at 3:13, the bottom drops out. The extra noises vanish, the piano reverts to power chords, and the synth beat is replaced by a classic cheesy NIN kick, pounding out quarter notes. Reznor reemerges vocally, stronger, surrounded by a chorus of thousands. It's like watching Keanu Reeves walk into the lobby of the Matrix for the first time.

At that moment, I knew that With Teeth was going to be just fine.

What you need to understand about With Teeth is that it is a collection of singles. I have a personal rule about NIN CDs: I never shuffle them. On the last two full releases, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, the songs are part of a cohesive whole, blending from one to another. The Fragile in particular uses instrumentals to move between songs, changing moods, tempos, and styles. With Teeth doesn't do any of that. It's not a concept album, and it's easier to listen to, although perhaps less ultimately rewarding.

That being said, there's hardly a bad song here, no matter what order you play them in. Reznor isn't taking any huge steps forward technically, but he sounds absolutely comfortable with the tools at his disposal, and it lets him stretch out sonically. Tracks like "The Line Begins to Blur", "Every Day Is Exactly The Same," and "Getting Smaller" are vintage NIN, with heavy distortion and vocals wrapped around a complicated but ultimately danceable beat. They're great, but it's oddballs like "Sunspots" and "With Teeth" that stand out. The former sounds like the Pixies run through a blender, and the latter struts monstrously through the overpronounced but oddly catchy chorus ("uh-WITH-uh-TEETH-ah!"). The radio single, "The Hand That Feeds," has grown on me with repeated listenings. Its rhyming dictionary chorus is its weakest link and a throwback to Reznor's sometimes clumsy writing skills, but the rest of the song is solid, enjoyable industrial pop.

By far my favorite song on With Teeth is it's most unique offering, "Only." The drumbeat is funky even by NIN standards, and it's got one of those two-note basslines that induce chronic toe-tapping. But it's the lyrics and their delivery that cracks me up, since Reznor speaks his lines like some sort of manic beat poet.

i'm becoming less defined
as days go by
fading away
well, you might say i'm losing focus
kind of drifting
into the abstract
in terms of how i see myself
I wouldn't say that it's upbeat, because this is still Nine Inch Nails, but it's definitely a little off-kilter--in a good way. It feels like Reznor has accepted the grim subject matter of his work, but he's able to find fresh angles from which to view it. In fact, that's a pretty good description of With Teeth as a whole. I understand that Reznor went clean while making this album, and there's a resulting air of self-awareness throughout. The music is still dark, but With Teeth explores that darkness instead of just wallowing in it.

The weakest points of the CD are songs that don't take advantage of Reznor's new range. "You Know What You Are?" and "The Collector" almost stall With Teeth after "All the Love in the World" as solid but unremarkable NIN. They could easily be tracks from The Downward Spiral or Broken. Besides that, it's hard for me to find much fault here. The production is, of course, flawless, and the DVD side of the dual-disc format offers a "Hand That Feeds" music video and a 5.1 mix, which is very nice. The lack of a theme means that With Teeth may not hold up as well as previous NIN releases in the long run, but that's not the intention. Instead, it's a great set of songs collected for shorter listening times. Fans of Reznor's work should definitely pick it up.

One last note: the dual-disc version may have some decent features, but it also doesn't always play nice with various CD and DVD players. My car unit (a cheap Panasonic) and home computer optical drive (some bizarre Korean import technology bought on a whim) handle it just fine, but the Dell computers at work don't like it. They refuse to even see the CD side, and have trouble reading the DVD side. If you have a choice, and you don't plan on listening to it in a 5.1 setup, see if a copy on standard CD exists. The extras aren't worth the hassle.

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