On Hesitation Marks (Columbia), Nine Inch Nails first album in three years, Trent Reznor sings that “I said Goodbye but I / I had to try / I Came Back Haunted.” With the curious combination of those lyrics and the album’s title, a reference to the marks those who test the suicide method, one cannot help but wonder just how much autobiography Mr. Reznor inserts into the work. Mr. Reznor famously pulled the plug on Nine Inch Nails in 2009, saying it was time for the band “to disappear for a while.” While it seems that he felt it was time for the band to come back, Mr. Reznor still seems haunted by the hiatus: this hesitation mark for his original group.
This haunted state of mind makes it apt for Mr. Reznor to name this Nine Inch Nails tour the “Tension” tour. Tension is the central theme of the tour and it pervades throughout the setlist, the visual presentation and the environment of the arena in general. Walking into Washington DC’s Verizon Center on October 18th, the thing one immediately notices on entry is the black curtain hanging around the stage. Nine Inch Nails make a statement even before the first notes a heard: seeing us is part of the tension of the show.
With works like 1999’s The Fragile being compared to art rock like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, one can begin to see where Mr. Reznor takes his cues. Like Rodger Water’s recent tour of The Wall, the band unleashed a tapestry of visual displays of light and color. Whether highlighting the band in gray against a red stage or being in the shadow of an ethereal forest, the group was focused on making the audience experience the act of seeing in a different way. However, similar to the original live performances of the Wall, Mr. Reznor wants to make it hard for you to see the group. Both facets contribute to the idea that he wants the spectacle of the band itself to be raised to an intellectual level, and to cause tension for the audience.
When the curtain did drop as the band launched into the lead-off “Copy of a” the members stood masked in white light from overhanging projectors while the stage was basked in overpowering shadows. Indeed Mr. Reznor seemed to be deliberately avoiding being seen by the audience. Between lines – even only words sometimes – he would jump in and out of the shadows, suggesting that he knew he was playing with the audience and would continue to do so.
After years of touring – indeed part of the reason he put Nine Inch Nails on hiatus – one might think that Mr. Reznor would have grown into his role on stage. This, and his continued haunted mindset, was all but confirmed during his first and only address to the audience after the first song of the encore. Mr. Reznor began the address to the crowd, saying “Thank you…than you very much. It’s weird to be up here…It is.” Mr. Reznor is curious in this way. As a man who makes his living baring the dark recesses of his soul to an understanding and sympathetic community on a global scale with his records, he finds intimacy is not as easy in groups of only several thousand.
This seems to be Mr. Reznor’s great tension: the need for catharsis for his hurt. While 48 and a new father of two, he remains to still retain all the anger, self-deprecation, and hurt that epitomized Nine Inch Nail’s first material. One could see the swings in the dynamics of the set – sonic tension, if you will – as the natural emotional swings of a hurt person. On a macro level, the set would swing from furious, riotous cacophony to delicate, melancholic beauty (or vice-versa). This was embodied well at the end of the main set, as the band transitioned from The Downward Spiral’s soft, subliminal instrumental “A Warm Place” to Broken’s jarring, existential thrasher “Wish.”
In bringing his own pain before the audience, Mr. Reznor’s goal appears to be one of cathartic release for all involved. He understands that both he and the audience are hurt, and they meet in these make shift meeting places to work through it together. There is a reason Mr. Reznor closes his shows every night with the same song. There is nothing quite like singing “Hurt” with 10,000 of your closest friends.
Nine Inch Nails will next appear at the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, NC October 25th-27th.
- Content originally published on this site