A grim holiday weekend ends with U.S. border agents hurling chemical weapons at families, and seemingly every immovable bureaucratic body refusing to prepare for a climate change-ravaged present, let alone the one in our bleak future.
It’s all to be forgotten with the next news cycle, as fast as the next tweet, as the world appears to lean into its existential despair and retreat into the nearest hole. It’s the kind of reckoning Nine Inch Nails has all but prophesied over the last three decades, wringing out pain like water from a rag over meditations on self-destruction, isolation and the end.
Catharsis implies there is some release, an absolution of the pain and a pardon of the sins that got it there. As the world burned, the band presided over three nights at the Saenger Theatre, where it faced its eternal skepticism, its anger and pain, not as an excuse to get over itself but a way to greet terror, and shake the earth from falling into an apathetic nihilism.
Trent Reznor confronts pain that’s often personal and intimate — the band performed a moving suite of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and “Subterraneans” with pieces from the band’s 2018 album “BAD WITCH” — and outwardly political; that pain still can transform into a potent weapon on 1989’s “Head Like a Hole,” among a crowd’s sea of righteous fists, or in the May Day squad’s infamous, brief guerilla karaoke version, sung to neo-Confederates anchored at the foot of the Jefferson Davis statue in Mid-City last year:
Head like a hole, black as your soul /
I'd rather die than give you control.
Bow down before the one you serve /
You're going to get what you deserve.
Among the black T-shirts and iconic NIN logos bobbing throughout the crowd on the final show of the three-night stand were a handful of top hats and leather pants, Gen Xers who latched on to the band’s visceral debuts with “Pretty Hate Machine” and “Broken,” and moody, formerly bowl cut-having middle schoolers who discovered “The Downward Spiral” after repeat viewings of “Closer” on MTV (hello).
Live, Reznor doesn’t recreate that studio fidelity — his specific sounds and textures are intact, but each instrument and layer become louder, bigger monsters sinking their teeth into the air around them, sustained with his gift for finding melodies that crack through the din. Metallic, acid-laced riffs scratch at itches one didn’t know they had.
A small, ominous red light hovered above a keyboard at the back of the stage. Punishing strobes pulsed to the gradually increasing speed of a warped snare introducing “Mr. Self Destruct,” and the band seemed to appear instantaneously on the stage after the strobe’s final pulse.
A light crew lurked at the band’s feet scanning their faces with colored lamps as if eerily tracked by a search light.
The seemingly simple magic of choreographed lights, smoke and volume created the illusion of another dimension, where the band lives as ghostly silhouettes among colorful splashes of light in fog.
With opener “Mr. Self Destruct,” Reznor reintroduced the unstoppable evil threading “The Downward Spiral.” The lurking, whispered mantras and quiet spaces on “Piggy” were filled with echoing drum thunder and a pseudo doom. Through gnashed teeth, Reznor repeated, “Nothing can stop me now, because I don’t care anymore,” invoking an invincible power through the promise of our own destruction.
Reznor lumbered across the stage and leaned into the mic as if pulling a lever that sends each song into another circle of hell. On stage right, Atticus Ross loomed over synthesizers, and longtime guitarist Robin Fink — who first joined the live band for the crucial “Self-Destruct” and “Further Down the Spiral” tours — deftly navigated Reznor’s compositions and released an acrid roar beside him.
The band clawed into a visceral groove on “Last” before the destructive speed on “March of the Pigs” and its afterglow, the subterranean dub of “Me, I’m Not,” played among green light beams and an aurora borealis pattern flickering behind the band with Reznor as its maestro.
That pulsing electronic fever was revived for “Shit Mirror,” which the band revved into a near-glammed pop metal anthem, paired perfectly with a stadium-sized “The Beginning of the End.” Reznor banged a tambourine against his chest with every down beat.
The gloss on Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 “Year Zero” had equal footing in Sunday’s set with the coarse metal from 1992’s “Broken” — albums that often feel worlds apart but share Reznor’s singular vision.
The band’s massive breakthrough, 1994’s “The Downward Spiral,” occupied five songs in the set. That album and its followup, 1999’s double LP “The Fragile,” wrestle with a creator tearing his identity apart, peeling away the demons and ending up at the start, considering the futility of what’s in our control, and how we wield what seemingly little is left.
On “I Do Not Want This,” Reznor releases his desperate plea: “I want to do something that matters.” Through the metal-machine-like trudge of “The Big Come Down,” Reznor finds himself in a trap, despite knocking down everything that made himself: “There is no place I can go, there is no way I can hide / It feels like it keeps coming from the inside.”
Bowie once praised Reznor’s music for its “beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure,” often lifted “at the most needy moment by a tantalizing melody.” The pair collaborated on Bowie’s 1997 single “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which Nine Inch Nails performed at the first of its three concerts at the Saenger.
On Sunday, the band instead built a gorgeous centerpiece for “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the last song on Bowie’s final album “Blackstar,” released two days before his death in 2016, followed by Bowie’s “Subterraneans” from “Low.”
Reznor’s ghostly saxophone wove through its ambient passages, sailing into elements of “BAD WITCH” tracks “God Break Down the Door” and “Over and Out,” songs haunted by Bowie’s spirit and indebted to it.
“Time is running out,” Reznor sings on “Over and Out,” contorting his voice into a tribute of Bowie’s, as if there’s a question Reznor wants him to answer. “I don’t know what I’m waiting for.”
The band blasted through fan hit “The Perfect Drug” followed by “Gave Up” and “Wish” from “Broken” before “Head Like a Hole,” filling the theater with bright white light above and throughout the stage. Reznor lobbed his guitar 20 feet into the air and let it crash with one last snare hit and synchronized strobe flash.
An encore began with the slick post-punk of “Survivalism” and “The Good Soldier” before Reznor introduced “And All That Could Have Been” from the live album of the same name and “written and recorded right down the street.”
Those lights dimmed and a near-orange glow filled the stage, appearing almost naked after sustaining blinding light patterns and a chilling fog cutting across pitch black.
Among a few songs the band played on all three nights, “Hurt” — the devastating conclusion to “The Downward Spiral” — closed every show.
With the trilogy of EPs that culminate in 2018’s “BAD WITCH,” Reznor — now 53, a survivor through addiction and recovery, through judgment and through crisis — asks whether there’s a point to this, and whether there’s an obligation to the world that binds us to it. (“There aren’t any answers here,” he concedes on “God Break Down the Door.”) Its bookend arrived 25 years earlier in “Hurt,” in which Reznor — reconciling his survival amid decay and disappointment — retraces the spiral to its beginning to start again, knowing the answers will never be there and the pain is all but guaranteed. But if we’re to greet death in a dying world, it’s absent in a crowd sharing a warm glow with the band onstage.
Set list from Sunday, Nov. 25:
“Mr. Self Destruct”
“March of the Pigs”
“Me, I’m Not"
“The Beginning of the End”
“I Do Not Want This”
“The Big Come Down”
“I Can’t Give Everything Away”/“Subterraneans”/“God Break Down the Door”/“Over and Out”/“The Frail”
“The Perfect Drug”
“The Hand That Feeds”
“Head Like a Hole”
“The Good Soldier”
“And All That Could Have Been”