Reznor’s post heroin-binge career has been interesting if only because of the highs (wah wah waaaaaah) and lows that it has bounced between. Academy Award notwithstanding, it has felt like Reznor has been adrift since coming back with 2005′s With Teeth which is more or less the definition of a “going through the motions” record. He’s older now, a bit wiser and seems ill suited to the dark, angry, teeth-gnashing aesthetic he’s inhabited for so long. Until Ghosts I-IV was released, variants of that aesthetic that had been the only ones presented and, at this stage in his career, they’ve all worn desperately thin.
So, where do you go when you’re running out of ideas as an artist? To the altar apparently. Somewhere during managing a then-exploding Twitter account, non-stop live videos on Vimeo and soundtracking duties, Reznor up and got married. And then put out How to Destroy Angels which, Coil heritage aside, is still a cringe-worthy name for a project.
Even with Mariqueen acting as lead singer in lieu of Reznor – something true only up to a point since his voice is literally in every track in the background – the distinct lack of ideas is a major issue for the record. Rarely does it feel like anything more than an NIN album that has been remixed to feature an unconfident singer half-delivering all of her lines.
And Mariqueen, as the primary vocalist of the group, lacks the presence and unique voice to overcome Reznor’s distinct song-writing habits. Instead, she leaves you with “The Space Between” and “A Drowning” which just reek of NIN. There’s no way to hear those two songs and wonder why Reznor didn’t just handle vocal duties as well. Even if he had, though, you’re still faced with the problem of them being a lyrically trite songs. When Reznor asked “Am I still tough enough?” on The Slip, it felt honest and true. Addressing the hyper-aggressive, masculine image he’d created and directing the question equally to the audience and himself was the first time he’d said something that rang true in five years, if not longer. It wasn’t simply invective and decay; there was self-awareness, finally. “The Space Between,” though, sounds like the beginnings of, “Aww, being famous just isn’t fun,” taken from the diary of a social martyr. To wit:
All our blood lying on the floor
Sense the crowd expecting something more
Opened up, proudly on display
What we tried so hard to hide away
The rest of the album plods along, throwing in a few tricks here and there that popped up on With Teeth and Year Zero. Lots of glitching and cut and paste synth elements sit atop adequate beats driven by very familiar chord progressions. Things get a little weird, though, when “BBB” suddenly breaks out the stomping boots from “Heresy.” Whether or not Reznor intentionally borrowed an old sample from a song featuring some his most direct lyrics is a mystery, but the contrast in the two contexts is jarring. This time, instead of accompanying:
“He flexed his muscles to keep his flock of sheep in line
He made a virus that would kill off all the swine
His perfect kingdom of killing suffering and pain
Demands devotion atrocities done in his name”
It now rests alongside the alternating assertive/breathy delivery of Maandig. Were it not for that, it might fit right in with Year Zero and the “boot stamping on a human face – forever” motif of that album. The boots sample is instead used as a prop in what is, arguably, one of the more awkwardly executed tracks (“Sunspots” doesn’t count. It shouldn’t ever have even made it onto With Teeth) in his discography due largely in part to Maandig’s delivery. Instead of another Orwellian anti-authoritarian song (or whatever the fuck he was going for), we get cheap S&M overtones.
And no, it’s not Maandig’s fault that “listen to the sound of my big black boots” and “Get down, on the ground… No control You do what you’re told” are sexualized by virtue of the fact that it’s a woman delivering them. It’s simply her failure as a singer that makes her partially responsible for the song missing the mark by a such a large margin. Avoiding that sort of connotation shouldn’t be difficult, but her delivery is so unfamiliar with the vocal style that Reznor has used his entire career that it falls flat on its face. Speaking of Reznor, he does no favors for the track, either. Turning the vocal duties into a duet with her effectively presents a “man/woman dictating bedroom terms to one another” dynamic. Perhaps if it had been solely Maandig, it’d have worked marginally better. Either way, Orwell’s the last thing the song conjures and despite all obvious appearances in the execution, that seems to be what they were aiming at.
Maandig has a good voice the few times she uses it, but there’s rarely a moment on the album where she seems to assert herself in any real sense. If anything, she comes off as sheepish and hesitant which means Reznor’s distinctive personality is left to run wild as someone that accomplished and experienced is often wont to do. However, right now, that’s the last thing Reznor needs while he’s thin on ideas.