Given the major transformation in Trent Reznor's life and career in recent years, it's not surprising that he has written lines like "Wave goodbye/Wish me well/I've become/Something else" on the new Nine Inch Nails album, "Hesitation Marks."
He has become something else since putting NIN on hiatus four years ago — a husband, a father, an Academy Award-winning movie writer. And, at 48, he sounds somewhat happy, if that's the right word for a guy who turned his misery, anger and paranoia into a gold mine in the '90s and '00s.
That "something else" was on grand, high-tech and even soulful display Monday as NIN's "Tension 2013" tour played before a surprisingly small, but clearly into it crowd of about 3,000 people at the Don Haskins Center.
I'm not really sure why there were so few people there. Maybe it's all those free metal shows at the Socorro Entertainment Center — Korn and Lamb of God were there recently; Megadeth will come through Dec. 14. Maybe it was the long layoff for a band whose commercial fortunes, including the all-important radio play in a name-driven market like ours, eroded in the latter part of the last decade.
What may turn out to be the smallest audience on the first leg of the "Tension" tour was treated to a new, more versatile but no less ferocious version of Nine Inch Nails, the better to put some meat on the bone of the new songs and to add newer, often more soulful elements to some of the older songs that rounded out a show that had four clear sections.
It opened with megaforce, as Reznor, resplendent in black, took the microphone center stage and led the six-piece ensemble through a pummeling first act. It opened with a thunderous take of new song "Copy of A" and ended with a couple of angry anthems, "March of the Pigs" and "Piggy," a full frontal assault complete with unprovoked crowd singalong and a Reznor dip into said crowd.
The reconfigured lineup, including propulsive Who bassist Pino Palladino and explosive drummer Ilan Rubin, couldn't have been any more forceful, especially in combination with a sensory overload of light show that would only get more dazzling as 3D and other mind-bending effects were rolled out (the sound design, by the way, was superb).
The set segued into the more meditative and uneven second act, which focused heavily on fleshed out versions of songs from "Hesitation Marks," as well as some pre-hiatus stuff that fit the tone. Some of the new songs, notably a slower "Came Back Haunted" and a deeply funky "All Time Low," benefitted greatly from live drums, bass, guitars and harmonies from Rolling Stones backup Lisa Fischer and former Whitney Houston backup Sharlotte Gibson, who joined in about six songs in.
Their human elements were welcome replacements for the colder, more impersonal electronics of the recorded versions. Unfortunately, some of the newer songs, like "Disappointed" and "Find My Way," don't move that much on record. Other than some colorfully exotic instrumental touches on the former, they didn't move much in concert either. Neither did some of the older stuff that was mixed in.
But the slow drag of the second act eventually gave way to intense burn of the third, which sparked a little old-school punk fury, featured more eye-popping visuals and concluded with an unholy triumvirate of "Wish," "The Hand That Feeds" and "Head Like a Hole" that had the band playing with scorched-earth intensity and the floor crowd roiling.
By the time the fourth act, the encore, came around, the ecstatic crowd had responded with an otherworldly light show of its own, waving the flashlights glowing from their cellphones. The encore was a microcosm of what had preceded, including a slow, moody "All the Love in the World," which included some wordless soul wailing from Fischer, and a hushed version of NIN's self-destructive ode "Hurt," complete with acoustic guitars.
Reznor and NIN have come a long way, musically and personally, since that song first haunted audiences, and, later, Johnny Cash, in 1994. He's an older, wiser, happier version of the angry young man who battled rage, disillusionment and personal demons so many years ago.
It's clear from the songs on "Hesitation Marks" and the mix of new and old ("Closer" was a notable omission) that made up Monday's show at the Don that he's put a little distance on the old torments that still shadow him. "Finally/I am whole/I believe/I am whole/I am free," Reznor sings on "Everything."
With the "Tension 2013" tour, Reznor has used that freedom to strike an absorbing, artful way to balance his before and after.
Doug Pullen is the program director for the El Paso Community Foundation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.