When Trent Reznor announced that he would be retiring Nine Inch Nails after a brief tour at the end of this summer, all he promised were beefed up setlists and “a few surprises.” After the first two shows in New York — one each at the tiny Bowery Ballroom and the slightly less tiny Webster Hall — it’s clear that Reznor wasn’t kidding. After pulling out a few rarities at Saturday night’s show (including the band’s rarely-played cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls”), the Nine Inch Nails frontman satisfied what appeared to be a long-held desire in front of about 1,400 diehards: He played his 1994 album The Downward Spiral in its entirety on Sunday night (August 23).
Though Reznor’s debut Pretty Hate Machine had gotten him the initial attention he deserved, The Downward Spiral made him a star. That’s pretty odd considering that record is an incredibly dense, harsh and at times violent descent into Reznor’s warped mind. But the difficulty didn’t stop it from becoming one of the best written-about and most beloved albums of the 1990s. To some people, it’s simply the album that contained one of the dirtiest hit singles in history (“Closer,” with its chorus of “I want to f— you like an animal”), but to the fans who helped sell out Reznor’s entire “Wave Goodbye” tour in minutes, it’s a definitive statement from a brilliant artist.
Reznor and his able band plowed through the 14 tracks that make up The Downward Spiral with savagery and grace. The opener “Mr. Self Destruct” provided an initial jolt of adrenaline, but then the jazzy “Piggy” slowed things down. Following the one-two punch of “Heresy” (chorus: “God is dead and no one cares”) and “March of the Pigs” and the crowd collectively realized what was happening, even the densest keyboard meandering (which makes up some of The Downward Spiral’s latter half) was met with love and awe.
“I’ve always wanted to play that record,” Reznor said once the final song “Hurt” had wrapped. “And that’s the only time I’ll be doing that.”
But the show was only half over, as Reznor used the evening’s second hour to work through other parts of the band’s deep catalog. Though his songs are full of angst, despair and dread, Reznor is a playful performer, bounding from keyboard to keyboard and back to his spot at the front of the stage, occasionally taking guitar solos and rubbing shoulders with longtime guitarist Robin Finck. The band gave old hits like “Terrible Lie” and “The Hand That Feeds” jolts of energy that made them feel fresh, while Reznor clearly reveled in poking into the more obscure corners of his songbook, which included a trio of covers (Adam Ant’s “Physical (You’re So),” Pigface’s “Suck” and Gary Numan’s “Metal”) and the deep cut “Burn.”
By the time Reznor wrapped the night with a run through “Head Like a Hole,” the masses were drenched with sweat but still shouting along as though their salvation depended on it. If this really is the end for Reznor, he is certainly going out on a high note. But any man who is this good at giving sympathy to the devil probably won’t stay out of the game for long.
“Mr. Self Destruct”
“March of the Pigs”
“I Do Not Want This”
“Big Man With a Gun”
“A Warm Place”
“The Downward Spiral”
“Lights in the Sky”
“Physical (You’re So)”
“The Hand That Feeds”
“Head Like a Hole”