Some time in the late 90s, Trent Reznor holed himself up in a house near the ocean. Ostensibly, he was there to write some music. And while he did use that time to begin piecing together some of the songs that would become Nine Inch Nails's 1999 double-album The Fragile, Reznor - struggling with various addictions and personal problems - really retreated to that house because he wanted to kill himself.
At least, that’s the story Reznor told from the stage at the Comcast Center on Wednesday night. And it has a happy ending, of course: Reznor is still alive, healthy, clean, and has even found love. He mentioned that he is planning to wed his fiance, West Indian Girl singer Mariqueen Maandig, at that very house, to exorcise the demons – perhaps once and for all. After telling us this, he proceeded to play "La Mer," an instrumental composition he wrote during this dark period, as his way of demonstrating that he has overcome his demons, and he's out on the other side of it all now.
Same stage, an hour later: Jane's Addiction is playing, consecutively, a song about Jesus Christ participating in a threesome with two debauched "Marys," and one about the benefits of finding comfort in the arms of prostitutes. The contrast was noticeable: a one-man army laying out his troubles for all to see; a band who celebrate the state of being completely untroubled by anything. Even though it's reasonably well-known that Farrell and company have battled addiction and other such troubles in their past as well, it still feels like they're incapable of much emotion beyond "Hey man, relax, we're all just trying to have a good time here," although Farrell did ask a guy who threw a projectile at him to leave. (For the record, the projectile appeared to be . . . a piece of paper.)
Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction seem frozen in time, veterans of an era when anyone who played guitar and wasn't hair-metal could get lumped into the "alternative" bin, there to fight for airplay against bands they had absolutely nothing in common with – say, R.E.M. and the Pixies. Take a look at their respective landmarks: Pretty Hate Machine (on the verge of its 20th anniversary) and Nothing's Shocking (already passed that milestone last year). They're both great albums, yet Reznor's body of work is more relevant in 2009 than that made by the JA to his NIN. And sure, part of that is the simple fact that Reznor has continued making quality albums into this decade, something many bands with shorter careers than Nine Inch Nails have been unable to do. (As regards both bands: It helps if you put out records no oftener than once every five years.)
But it isn't only that - Reznor makes over-the-top angst work in a way that few others can pull off, and a lot of that is his ability to connect with his audience and present himself as one of them. His songs are intensely personal, of course, but he manages to find a universal fragility in his own feelings, whether he's directing his hatred externally - as he does in "Burn," "Wish," "Head Like a Hole," "March of the Pigs," and "The Hand That Feeds," all heard last night - or internally - last night's examples include "The Fragile," "Hurt," "The Way Out Is Through," and "Echoplex." This could also help to explain why he's reportedly "retiring" Nine Inch Nails; he's at peace now and doesn't relate to all the self-loathing.
Then there’s Perry Farrell, who’s like the guy that corners you at a party and won't shut up. Maybe some of the stories he tells are mildly entertaining and kind of titilating, but after a while it gets a little tiresome. Chris Dahlen once compared him to a homeless guy ranting on a street corner while panhandling in a Pitchfork review, and that feels about right. It’s fine, banterish smalltalk to praise Boston for its role in the American Revolution– but maybe not in the middle of "Then She Did," the band's most haunting, beautiful song, and one of very few introspective moments in the band’s repertoire.
Farrell's onstage antics were not terribly distracting otherwise. He'd dance, strut, walk across the stage with his arms held away from his sides like somebody doing a bad John Wayne imitation. He struck poses where he'd jerk the microphone away from his face and freeze in position. He didn't appear to be showing any ill effects from his recent calf injury. His voice, always thin, sounded tentative and restrained - maybe he simply can't hit some of those notes nowadays – but the rest of the band sounded great. Say what you will about Dave Navarro, but the guy can play, as can Stephen Perkins. This was billed as a "proper" Jane's Addiction reunion (as opposed to their previous reunions) because of the presence of original bassist Eric Avery, but I'll be honest and say I'm not sure I would’ve been able to tell the difference.