Monday, November 10, 2008

Concert Review: Nine Inch Nails, DCU Center, Worcester, November 9

Let’s start with the demographics. Trent Reznor is my age. When I went to my first Nine Inch Nails show in 1990, the audience was predominantly around our age. Eighteen years later, neither Reznor nor I were exactly surrounded by our peers. This is both good news and bad news for the band. Clearly this isn’t a nostalgia act coasting on its past glories, only attracting other people in their 40s reliving their own past glories. Nine Inch Nails has continued to make intriguing music but has also cultivated fresh legions of fans, especially through interactive media that is second nature to younger listeners, and has rewarded their loyalty with things like the free download of The Slip.

But while I laud Reznor for remaining relevant with the youths, I’m concerned about his diminishing relevance with his own age group. I’m no longer angry the way I was in my 20s; despondent is now my negative emotion of choice. Reznor displayed great maturity with Year Zero, showing that he was no less angry than in his 20s but that he’d taken a much broader worldview. Rather than a myopic vision of his personal life, he channeled his energy into into a metaphorical indictment of the Bush administration. But if he’s only managing to attract younger fans without holding onto the older ones, I fear that his ongoing accomplishments will be dismissed critically, written off as the equivalent of horror movies whose shock value appeals to mainly to teens. In other words, as little better than Marilyn Manson but with a longer shelf life.

Two factors will likely save the band from that fate. The first is what a potent live show they put on. Reznor has always been a magnetic performer, seething with pent-up aggression but never cartoonish in his presentation. He radiates energy, and it never comes across as over-rehearsed shtick. The rest of the band is perfectly serviceable; they’ll never upstage the frontman, but they don’t limit him the way some of Iggy Pop’s backing bands have. Secondly, he has his undiminished skill as a songwriter and composer. “Discipline” from The Slip conveys the frayed nerves of addiction. Songs from The Fragile have astonishing layers of detail in the arrangements.

After getting the audience riled up, most notably with “March of the Pigs,” the band switched to a calmer interlude featuring several instrumental songs and a lot of mechanical, rather than electronic, percussion. Even without Reznor storming the stage, they put on quite a spectacle, mainly through the use sheer curtains of lights with an imaginative design scheme. The creations worked with the songs and amplified the band’s movements. Taken on their own, they could be a display in a contemporary art museum.

Reznor never spoke to the audience until the encore. He apologized for the show’s postponement and thanked everyone for showing up; it had been scheduled for August but Reznor had a throat ailment. And perhaps meant as a special treat to compensate for the delay, he brought out surprise guest and “old friend” Peter Murphy, for whom NIN had opened in 1990. Murphy was appropriately reptilian for his duet on “Reptile.” I would have been more excited if I actually liked Murphy. I’m fond of plenty of dramatic frontmen, but I’ve never bought his brand of drama.

Opening act Deerhunter had the misfortune of a lead singer who sounds too much like Thom Yorke and looks too much like his dorkier brother, an impressive accomplishment considering how high Mr. Yorke sets the bar.

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