After Trent Reznor said that Nine Inch Nails’ new stage production was inspired by the 1983 Talking Heads tour—which lives on in director Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense—one had to wonder what that would mean for the group’s Friday night headlining set at Lollapalooza. Would Reznor be swimming in an absurdly oversized suit à la David Byrne? Would he twitch around the stage with a lamp as a dance partner?
The translation, as it turned out, was mercifully not so literal. This is NIN’s first tour since a 2009 outing after which Reznor put the band on hiatus to focus on David Fincher film scores and the side project How to Destroy Angels, which includes his wife Mariqueen Maandig. As it happened, there was no big gray suit jacket bobbing onstage at the north end of Grant Park on Friday. At the outset, it was just Reznor alone up there, wearing a black sleeveless shirt in a spotlight, as we imagine him in our mind’s eye. The band slowly joined him onstage, just as Tina Weymouth and the other members of Talking Heads assembled around Byrne in Stop Making Sense.
In the show opener “Copy of A,” off the soon-to-drop Hesitation Marks, Reznor sang, “I am just a shadow of a shadow," an apt line. Visually, the show was all about the interplay of light and dark, a seminar in festival expressionism. At times, beams of white light from the front of the stage created large shadows on the backdrop, making Nine Inch Nails appear as 90-foot-tall ebony phantoms. The handful of onstage screens—which unlit looked not unlike the steel fencing around the festival grounds—moved around the band in neatly choreographed patterns, reducing Reznor and company to mere silhouettes bathed in TV static, an eerie green glow or abstract pixelated patterns. It was no accident that the pair of Jumbotrons beside the stage were dark for NIN's performance; Reznor seemed to work from the old film principle of that which is obscured is the thing that is scariest.
The artistic staging choice seemed to put off a lot of people at a festival that typically is more fueled by big-screen spectacle. A few hundred people probably had a great view, but the vast majority of the thousands in the crowd were left squinting into the strobes. Reznor didn’t help his case by dipping into the spare, contemplative piano-driven songs that have, on NIN’s more recent releases, taken up increasing time alongside the band’s trademark aggro material.
The setlist’s freshest sounds came from NIN’s oldest material. The muscular guitar blasts from “Gave Up” off the Broken EP, "March of the Pigs" from The Downward Spiral. Songs off the band’s 23-year-old debut Pretty Hate Machine sounded remarkably current, from “Terrible Lie” early on to “Head Like a Hole” near the end of the show.
On the couple of occasions when Reznor retreated to the piano to put his composer side on display, the audience grew antsy, even belligerent. By and large, they didn’t want Reznor, the ambient hobbyist. They wanted the screaming savage with a two-handed grip on the mic, the I-wanna-fuck-you-like-an-animal industrialist. Which they certainly got. The propulsive kick-drum thump of “Closer” made its appearance less than midway through, and with the brilliant Chicago skyline as backdrop, Reznor got the Lolla masses closer to god.
RECOMMENDED: See our complete coverage of Lollapalooza 2013.