Through the first hour or so of his band's concert in Irving, Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor had barely uttered a word in between songs. Not that chatter was terribly necessary, as the alternative-rock trailblazers had been expertly searing Irving's Toyota Music Factory stage with a deep arsenal of songs that helped define the 1990s rock 'n' roll landscape.
"It's hard for me to come to Texas and not think about Vinnie Paul, Dimebag Darrell and Pantera," Reznor said to a hearty round of cheers as he cracked a slight smile and lightly chuckled. "I remember a couple nights of me carrying Vinnie out of a gentlemen's club over my shoulder. Here's a song from another friend of ours who isn't here anymore, David Bowie."
The group then kicked into an electro-beat-driven "I'm Afraid of Americans," a Bowie track Reznor remixed in '97. Although the song's sarcastic, anti-capitalist sentiments foreshadowed the singer's next move, few if any of the 4,000-person, sold-out crowd knew that his tribute to departed friends would quickly redirect into everyone's favorite fun-time concert subject: politics.
"We're all friends here, so I gotta ask, I gotta know," a suddenly chatty Reznor said after the Bowie tune. "I won't judge you, but I want to see a show of hands, who here voted for Ted Cruz?"
And because Reznor made this request to a primarily white Texas crowd likely close to his own age of 53, the response was an awkward mix of boos, cheers, prideful outstretched hands, and a few defiant middle fingers. Scanning the crowd in front of him, Reznor stayed true to his word, politely acknowledged the admitted Cruz voters and moved on sans judgment. Living on the polar ends isn't anything new for Reznor, especially as it pertains to his craft.
That the group moved on to play a blistering "1,000,000," the 2008 song featuring the despair-packed lyrics "Put the gun, in my mouth, close your eyes, blow my [expletive] brains out," isn't insignificant here. Nine Inch Nails is nothing if not a fierce outlet for oscillating torments and insecurities. Such extremes lend themselves well to Reznor's signature, alternating whisper-scream vocals, and wide breadth of sonic textures.
Traversing from fond memory to cold observation to frightening, murderous imagery, Reznor proved he's not about keeping things monotone. For the acclaimed Grammy and Oscar winner, anger and hurt can look, feel and sound vastly different from one moment to the next.
Time has had an interesting effect on the Nine Inch Nails catalog. When you consider "1,000,000" and some of the evening's other wall-rattlers, the instrumentation, though crisply, dramatically performed, didn't seem as dystopian and otherworldly Tuesday as it did two decades ago. It felt fresh still, no doubt, because the lyrical themes are universally timeless. And Reznor, regardless of how rich, buff and celebrated he becomes, has always known how to tap into the most shameful corners of our id.
The set-opening, propulsive "Mr. Self Destruct," the bombastic "Reptile," and the 21-year-old Lost Highway soundtrack gem "The Perfect Drug," which featured a frenetic, whirling drum and synth freakout jam ending, offered the industrial, yet melodically approachable clanging that mirror the songs' tumult. Hanging onto the microphone with both hands as he rhythmically rocked back and forth, Reznor embodied the hyper discomfort that the songs detail.
Plenty of Nine Inch Nails' tunes suggested the healthy amount of influence the night's opening band, the Jesus and Mary Chain, has had on Reznor. It was impossible not to appreciate the jet-engine buzz saw guitar and quickened punk beat during "Wish," early in the set and the trashing "Gave Up" after the opening group's faultless earlier performance.
It was also clear how Reznor's talent transformed him into an award-winning film score artist. NIN has a number of songs on the softer side of the stylistic scale that still talk about pain, though in a perhaps prettier sounding manner. The more atmospheric, down-tempo numbers from deep in the band's canon would be ideal for all sorts of films, not just flicks like Natural Born Killers or The Crow. The group played "The Lovers," a creeping, crawling electronic number, followed by the shadowy, atmospheric "This Isn't the Place." Reznor took a few turns playing keys and even blew on the saxophone for a bit of disorienting droning during the new song, "God Break Down the Door."
Quieter? In some cases. Different? OK. But less troubling? No way.
The highlights of the evening's ending were well-known tunes, which ironically manifested as triumphant, if not joyful, group sing-along ditties. "The Hand That Feeds" and "Head Like a Hole," which inarguably catapulted Reznor into fame's stratosphere almost 30 years ago, were both fist-pumping, high-fiving, bro-down jams in this concert setting, rather than bleak anthems of fighting control and authority.
Actually, the songs were all of those things at once, which is why NIN has stood the test of time.
No other song embodies that light and dark, everything-to-everyone tone than "Hurt," from 1994's treasured concept album The Downward Spiral. The song, delving into the narrator's festering insanity and hopelessness, was covered by country legend Johnny Cash shortly before his death in 2003, adding to the songs weighty view of life's ending. Even as Reznor screeched agonizing lyric after agonizing lyric, thousands song along, many with smiles, many holding the one next to them.
No matter one's political beliefs, social leanings or station in life, Nine Inch Nails is proof that misery loves any company it can get.
Nine Inch Nails returns for a second show at Toyota Music Factory in Irving on Nov. 28. More deets.