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Nine Inch Nails Seize Their Second Breath

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At the watershed of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which links Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx over Randall’s Island, sits the hallowed remains of The Robert Moses Building. New York’s infrastructure tzar and one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century — who set the template for how humans live, work, commute, and exist within cities — housed the office of his power base, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, at this nexus. Commuters who passed on the bridge above Moses would pay a fee, a tribute in coin to the man who built that, and nearly every other bridge, park, tunnel, and public work in the city from the ’20s to the ’60s.

Robert Moses never held elected office, raised money independently for his infrastructure projects, controlled the press but was rarely in it, was beholden to no public official, and crushed any opponents who dared challenge his authority. Moses did not leave his keep on Randall’s for anyone; you had to come see him, to kiss the ring, to take the ferry to his moated-off castle on a mound of slime, grime, and earth.

This is where I went on Sunday night to kiss the ring of Trent Reznor.

Trent takes the stage in sunglasses and a black leather jacket. It’s 80 degrees and it’s almost 10pm on a Sunday night. He’s playing the “Red Hot Chili Peppers” time slot of Panorama Festival, in the second or third show back after a three-year hiatus. His band returns to the spotlight as the generation above him fills arenas with no original members and the generation below is heading things off at the pass. He’s going on after a legacy act, A Tribe Called Quest, performs their (alleged) last ever New York show. And he’s closing out a festival of millennial content-creators who create content for other millennials to scroll past while they’re taking a shit, ignoring people in the elevator, or while not paying attention in their 70k-a-year college classes.

Trent’s really nothing like Robert Moses, other than the two of them having highly improbable rises to power on their own terms, in plain sight yet while nobody was really looking. It’s baffling to me that a band this aggressive, uncommercial, and artistically idiosyncratic was ever this popular, let alone still this popular. Nine Inch Nails are proving in this decade of cookie-cutter Social Media music that they are not only the greatest cult band of all time, but they’re getting better. Maybe it’s Trent’s relationship with Atticus, or David Fincher kicking their asses to the next level, or having enough distance from those early years in the band to be reinvigorated.

I was up in the shit when NIN came out in full Twin Peaks regalia. I hadn’t been to a concert since Aphex Twin crushed me last December and to see Trent get up there and turn the Chili Peppers arena slot into a basement hardcore show for the first 10 minutes — “Branches/Bones” into “Wish” into “Less Than” into “March of the Pigs” — you forget how hard and cut this band is, how many great songs they’ve written over the years, how smoothly they move from sex-funk to metal to jungle beats, and how sonically tight-knit they are while still playing beats and power-chord riffs. This is a real band, a fucking good one, one that we don’t deserve.

Why are they so good? And why now does it feel like I, and we, need them more than ever before?

And you can always justify
The missile trails across the sky again
So what are you waiting for?
You got what you asked for
Did it fix what was wrong with you?
Are you less than?

We’re a nation of scattered desires, of branded entertainment, of art by democratic committee, and of multifaceted, paranoid, self-selecting realities. Not only did we allow our national identity collapse, but we continue to talk about letting it collapse as though we didn’t have a say in the matter. And now, all we do is want — followers, views, likes, retweets, Super-Likes, impeachments, crypto-currency price spikes, internships, jobs, Russian money laundering, celebrity — but what happens when we get it?

Before the media spiraled past the point of no return, Stephen Colbert said something profoundly simple: that we were all “drinking too much of the poison.” A poison that tastes real good, that distracts from the meaninglessness in post-modern life. We could have stopped drinking, but instead we’ve gone deeper, repeating the names and vague concepts of things that we will seek vengeance on like Arya Stark. Things beyond our control, that present an illusion of fulfillment. If only my band gets on this tour, I will be a successful musician. If only I get this job I will be happy. If only Trump is impeached, our country will be fixed. If only, if only, if only, if only.

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Trent understands the depths of pain and the heights of ecstatic success probably better than any musician of his generation, and maybe better than any artist working in any medium. He knows about being incomplete, about trying to fill that hole with whatever you can find – professional pursuits, material satisfactions, gonzo creativity. He knows about addiction, about those literal poisons, about going down rabbit holes with no clear exit.

Here we are, years into Trent’s sobriety and years past the band’s pop-cultural Pulp Fiction moment in a strange new world of music consumption, where bands simply mean less to people than they did in decades past and everything is equalized and disposable. So Trent does what must be done: he brings his band into 2017 in aviators, bad-ass leather jackets, and hard beats.

It seems so simple, but he’s doing it now with the kind of comfort earned from years of trying, of drinking that poison, of justifying the “missile trails” of his life, of living as the literal Prince of Darkness. He’s making the best music of his career, in more varied ways than ever before. And it seems as though the best stuff is yet to come, that from out of the darkness, whether or not he found what he was looking for, he carries on.

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