Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Long Players

Trent and Tori

By Matt Ashare

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  It seems almost too quaint a notion even to be bringing up in this day and age, but it wasn't so long ago that the ephemeral pleasures of pop music appeared on the verge of being overwhelmed by an angst-ridden, world-weary rock with passion, depth, purpose, and meaning. The alterna-rock years, as they'll likely be remembered, promised serious art in place of fanciful flights of commerce, dissonance in place of harmony, and performers who weren't afraid to challenge their audience and the mainstream perception of how a rock star looked, acted, and felt.

But angst turned out to be every bit as easy to commodify as anything else, and it was the audience who grew weary of a world populated by righteous imitations for whom something as intangible as integrity or "realness" had become a kind of artistic holy grail, and whose very being compromised everything "alternative" was supposed to stand for. And so, here we are at the end of the '90s, right back where we left off a decade ago, with carefully choreographed pop phenoms like Britney Spears and Ricky Martin asserting their rightful commercial dominance (as Michael Jackson did in the pre-Kurt days of yore), Nashville churning out megastar product like the Dixie Chicks, and hip-hop and heavy metal competing for the bulk of the alienated suburban youth market on a day-to-day basis.

Against this backdrop of what amounts to a return to normality, or at least to the way things are supposed to be, a new album by an artist of substance -- a Trent Reznor or a Tori Amos -- takes on a special significance, particularly in the rock press, which depends on "serious" artists to support the idea that rock music is worthy of serious consideration. There's only so much in-depth analysis of the Dixie Chicks you can do before you have to start dealing with the phenomenon and not the music. And taking rock seriously as art does require the existence of a relevant artist or two who also treat the medium with respect. Besides, pictures of Britney in a bathing suit will always win out over deep thoughts on the teen-pop trend. So it's not surprising to find a magazine like Rolling Stone -- the same magazine that had a writer contemplating Britney's "honeyed thighs" only a few months ago -- anointing Reznor's new Nine Inch Nails opus The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope) and Tori Amos's new To Venus and Back (Atlantic), both of which came out on September 21, with four-star reviews. After all, the magazine may rely on Britney-as-Lolita photo shoots or even hunky cover photos of Reznor to dominate the newsstands, but the writers who work there need serious artistic statements like The Fragile and To Venus and Back to reinforce the validity of their chosen line of work. And speaking from experience, I can attest that such things do help.

Artists like Trent and Tori are generally happy to play along, whether it's by going on record about the deep, personal nature of their work or simply by carrying themselves in a manner befitting a serious artist. As Trent puts it in the current issue of Rolling Stone, "I've worked hard at keeping Nine Inch Nails precious. . . . Everything I do is secondary to the music." He goes on to dis Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst ("Let Fred Durst surf a piece of plywood right up my ass") and Kid Rock ("I bet Kid Rock is on [MTV right now], judging something, giving something away with sumo wrestlers and his pants on backwards"), but his words about this summer's Woodstock are more to the point: "It was a dismal synopsis of everything that's bad in music right now. The incredible lack of importance seemed to jump off the screen at me."

Reznor, of course, makes important music -- music that's so serious that it's been five years since the last Nine Inch Nails album (The Downward Spiral), five years of soul searching, demon exorcising, and studio tinkering. Five years of trying to figure out how to ensure that Nine Inch Nails still matter. The result: an hour and 40 minutes plus of music, most of it played entirely by Reznor himself, packaged as a two-CD set and positioned to be the last great rock album of the millennium. The disc opens, uncharacteristically for Reznor, the dark prince of techno industrial complexity, with a simple acoustic-guitar riff. And so begins one of the disc's many measured musical movements from soft and spare to hard and dense as first one and then another programmed beat shifts into position and Trent's familiar voice and a touch of white noise join the fray on the march toward the inevitable screamed chorus ("Too fucked up to care anymore!"). Except for the acoustic guitar, this is vintage Nine Inch Nails, or at least something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Downward Spiral. But "Somewhat Damaged" is just a four-and-a-half-minute nibble of the first disc, which itself is 55 minutes long, and Trent doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would spend two years in the studio without trying out a few new recipes.

Or would he? The title "Somewhat Damaged" suggests that this is one morbid soul who's acquired a sense of humor (or an appreciation for understatement) since he last stared into the abyss, something that working with Marilyn Manson will probably do for you. Yet The Fragile is peppered with ominous-sounding titles like "The Wretched," "The Great Below," "Into the Void," "The Big Come Down," and, my personal favorite, "Ripe (With Decay)." Lyrics like "Made the choice to go away/Drink the fountain of decay/Tear a hole exquisite red/Fuck the rest and stab it dead" and "The clouds will crack and the sky cracks open/And god himself will reach his fucking arm through/Just to push you down" abound. So as far as literary inspiration goes, Trent still comes off like a guy who gets most of his from vampire comic books.

But it's the texture of Trent's voice, dry and almost palpably close to the microphone at times, distant and hollow at others, that generally matters more than the words. Because Nine Inch Nails' music is all about surfaces, from the latticed drum-machine patterns that so often dominate Reznor's productions to the rubbery bass tones that lend structure and groove, from the viciously abraded guitar chords that saturate every crescendo to the crystalline synth structures that glide transparently from one peak to the next. Reznor's art has always been about welding together different sonic surfaces -- sleek digital disco planes, serrated punk guitars, angular industrial clamor. On The Fragile he addresses the art of three-dimensional noise, gradually layering sound atop sound, beat atop beat, and then slowly or abruptly pulling away layers to reveal what's underneath, so that, for example, the metal-on-metal maelstrom of "We're in This Together" slowly resolves into a quiet, gentle, rather pretty piano passage. That in part accounts for the album's length, and for the fact that in many cases Reznor has done away with rigid verse/chorus/verse structures in favor of more linear arrangements that have an almost symphonic weight and some of the coolest drum sounds ever committed to tape. It's actually not all that different from what kids who are now close to 40 used to call prog-rock -- the kind of music a band who put out an album called Fragile a couple decades ago once specialized in. Fortunately, for radio programmers at least, shout-along choruses emerge often enough that Interscope should be able to edit out a single or three if that proves necessary. But for the most part, The Fragile is best experienced the way it was made -- alone and over long periods of time.

Like Reznor, Tori Amos is a classically trained pianist who understands the importance of rock guitar and loves the textures of techno. Her new two-disc To Venus and Back wasn't as eagerly awaited as The Fragile, but then, Amos wasn't even planning to do more than throw together a quick live album until inspiration struck this summer and she found herself with a whole album of new studio material ready to go. So now we've got a 13-track live disc -- Amos's first official full-length concert recording -- and 11 new tunes, both recorded by Amos with her "Plugged" touring band. It's a lot of music, but, like Reznor, Amos is one of those artists who's established herself as someone worth committing some time to -- which is to say she's generally accepted as one of the decade's important artists.

The studio portion of To Venus and Back, subtitled "Venus Orbiting," doesn't throw any new wrinkles into the plot Amos has developed over the course of her five previous solo albums. The impressionistic lyrics ("Father, I killed my monkey/I let it out to taste the sweet of spring" are the first words out of her mouth on the opening "Bliss"), Kate Bush-influenced vocal style, and intricate piano-based arrangements with a heavy emphasis on techno-ethereal production embellishments and programmed beats are all familiar touchstones of Tori's trade. "Glory of the '80s" is a techno-pop number that finds Amos reflecting on her early years in LA ("auditioning for reptiles") with characteristic candor; "Concertina" ranks among one of the prettiest pop tunes she's ever recorded; and both "Josephine" and "Spring Haze" find her stripping back to just a girl and her piano. Meanwhile, the live disc, "Venus Live, Still Orbiting," pairs some of her most popular singles ("Cornflake Girl" and "Little Earthquakes") with one previously unrecorded number ("Cooling") and would have stood up fine on its own without the studio disc if it had been released as originally planned.

Of course, all the four-star reviews in the world aren't going make To Venus and Back outsell the latest Britney Spears confection. And as eagerly awaited as The Fragile was, it's hard to imagine Reznor approaching the commercial heights of a Ricky Martin. There was a brief period of time when such things seemed possible, and it was during those few years that a proliferation of Nine Inch Nails sound-alikes and Tori Amos-style singer-songwriters threatened to devalue the qualities that help put artists like Reznor and Amos in that special four-star class. So, ultimately, they've got the Dixie Chicks and Britney Spears to thank for keeping the pop world safe for them.


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