Speaking broadly, Nine Inch Nails’ albums can be broken into two groups: the concept albums and No Concept albums. The former, The Downward Spiral, The Fragile, and Year Zero tend to be more well received than the latter group, which consists of debut Pretty Hate Machine, (so far) final album The Slip, and With Teeth (the Broken EP is sort of a go-between; there’s no concept to it, unless being distilled from pure rage counts). Out of the No Concept group, Pretty Hate Machine is regarded as the band’s dated but promising debut, and The Slip has been generally accepted as the band’s unofficial career spanning retrospection. With Teeth remains with the tag of “just another Nine Inch Nails album”.
Is it an unfair tag? Not exactly, but there are some perks to being standard. When a high school friend of mine encouraged me to get into Nine Inch Nails, he burned me a copy of Broken, the live album And All That Could Have Been, and With Teeth. I listened to each one over and over before eventually owning the bulk of the band’s discography, at which point I left With Teeth behind for the darker and more challenging stuff.
In retrospect, With Teeth works best as aN INtro (I am so sorry). It still snarls and thrashes, but there’s nothing as ugly as Broken, it has songs that rival “Closer”‘s catchiness without as much of The Downward Spiral‘s deranged baggage, it’s textured and thought out while lacking The Fragile or Year Zero‘s density, and it sidesteps the instrumental compositions that Trent Reznor dabbled in during the band’s final years. Coming after 1994’s The Downward Spiral and The Fragile in 1999, With Teeth sounds like a band with a fresh perspective.
Which was by no stretch an accident. Some time after TDS‘s release, Reznor began abusing drugs and alcohol, and things got even more out of control during The Fragile‘s release and tour (Reznor recounted writing “La Mer” in a place where he very nearly killed himself). Would his obituary have been tragic? Absolutely. Surprising for a guy whose last two albums were about utter despair, and one even ending in a suicide? Definitely not. Reznor entered rehab two years after The Fragile‘s release, took some time off, then began writing With Teeth.
Lead single “The Hand That Feeds” became the band’s biggest commercial hit, and in some ways, was the announcement of Nine Inch Nails 2.0. The song’s a slick distillation of the band’s rock/metal aggression, textured and tailored keyboards and electronics, and slick pop style. It’s one of the band’s better single choices. The video also shows Nine Inch Nails as something new as well: a full band. Reznor still did most of the studio work (Dave Grohl and touring drummer Jerome Dillon provided percussion), but “The Hand That Feeds” video is the first with a band in it since “March of the Pigs” in 1994. Reznor himself shows new signs of life in the video. A slim guy since NIN’s start, Reznor looks buffed up since he started lifting weights after his recovery. After a bloated double album, and six years off, Nine Inch Nails is shown as a band, to put it simply, with teeth.
With a six year lull between The Fragile and With Teeth, NIN sidestepped the dominance of nu-metal, a subgenre it helped inspire. Instead, one of With Teeth‘s more distinct influences is dance music; there is rhythm and funk present throughout that wasn’t as heavy in the band’s previous output. Even ballads “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” and “Beside You In Time” are percussion heavy, the breakdown on opener “All the Love in the World” is damn near soul, and best single and album highlight “Only” is one of the funkiest and outright sexiest songs Reznor’s composed. These elements are present all over With Teeth, and were more fleshed out on the dark electronic soul of Year Zero two years later.
The two elements of With Teeth that frequently get criticized are the lyrics and it being filler heavy. Reznor tends to write under his age, and when he’s angry, his lyrics can come off as juvenile quite easily (this problem plagued The Fragile, and Pretty Hate Machine has some real misfires). It shows up again on With Teeth, which tends to be lyrically on the nose (see: “Getting Smaller”, and “Love Is Not Enough”), but sometimes the honesty gets it right (“Right Where It Belongs”).
With Teeth does have a higher volume of uninteresting songs than most NIN releases, but it’s less to do with Reznor running out of ideas, and more to do with him taking stock and getting comfortable. He described the process behind the album as “lo-fi” and having a “kind of carelessness” to it, an intriguing mentality from one of modern music’s most prominent craftsmen. Even with some dull material, With Teeth is always masterfully recorded; “Sunspots” isn’t going to be anyone’s favorite song, but it still has some The Fragile style texturing to it.
Regardless of how well it’s done for itself, or where it ranks in Nine Inch Nails’ discography (I’d admit it places comparatively low), With Teeth is still a decent release. It put the band back on map after over half a decade’s absence when it came out, and it still functions as a nice sampler of what the group did. It deserves better recognition than it’s gotten for half a dozen enduring songs, and the overall level of craft that went into it. With Teeth isn’t as sharp as other Nine Inch Nails releases, but it doesn’t bite as hard as you’d think, either.