Story time. In 2009, I attended what was advertised as the second show of Nine Inch Nails’s farewell tour. I thought retiring NIN was the best possible move Trent Reznor could make at that point in time. He had long outgrown his angsty days as the guy who wanted to fuck you like an animal. He was now happily married and a father. With the release of the all-instrumental “Ghosts” album, I was convinced that the next stage of Trent’s career would be as a film composer (which he did. Hell, he even won an Oscar for his work on “The Social Network”). So, one last victory lap as NIN, no big fancy light show, just the band playing your favorites and dusting off some old album cuts that they hadn’t played in years. And the show was great. We got the first performance of “I Do Not Want This” since the 90’s. His cover of Adam Ant’s “Physical (You’re So)” was played for the first time in a long while. They chose not to play “Closer” because let’s face it, if you’re a NIN fan, you’ve heard that song at every concert; why not use that five minutes for something a little more obscure like “La Mer”? All in all, great show, and a great way to say goodbye to a band that represented the rebellious, angry days of my teenage years.
Fast forward a few years later, Trent basically says, “Just kidding LOL! NIN is back!” and released a single called, “Came Back Haunted”. Now here was a man who had left behind Nine Inch Nails for the best possible reasons, a man with a family, a man with a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and a man who had seemed to be making the transition to film scoring and more mellow music (How to Destroy Angels), coming back to the NIN well, with a friggin’ song whose title sounded like something a 15 year old would scrawl on their notebook during biology class, and trotting out the same old shit about his inner demons like he had never grown into an adult. It felt wrong, it felt ingenuine, and it felt like a slap in the face to those of us who forked over $50 to what was advertised as the NIN farewell tour. I was in my thirties at this point. Sure, I still have some personal demons to deal with, but I felt like Trent was trying to reach the 15 year old version of me instead of the 32 year old version of me. Instead of continuing the path of film scoring and making more mature music that reflected his age, Reznor was trying to resurrect “The Downward Spiral” era of NIN as a man nearing his 50th birthday. In essence, I felt like Nine Inch Nails failed to grow up with me. I couldn’t relate to anything on the new album for the same reason that it’s hard for me to listen to metal music that I enjoyed in my younger years: I’m not as angry at the world, and that music just doesn’t speak to me anymore.
Artists don’t have to grow up with me. They have no obligation to do anything other than whatever the fuck they want. In fact, I prefer they do precisely that. But as a fan, it’s difficult for me to keep following a band if they’re not growing up with me. Sure, I can put on an old punk record for nostalgic value and be able to fully rock out to it, but I can’t relate to it anymore. I’m not that angry teenager anymore. I can still put on NIN’s “Broken” and rock the fuck out when the mood strikes, but as a 35 year old who is in a decent place in his life, songs like “Wish” don’t speak to me the way they did 20 years ago.
Let’s compare two different approaches to this. First, we have Pearl Jam. During their “Ten”, “Vs”, and “Vitalogy” years, they expressed the same angst and frustration I felt at that same age. As time has gone by, they expanded their palette to songs that relate to what an adult feels like: an appreciation for the hand we’re dealt with in life, an awareness of the larger issues our society face, and a little punk rock just to get the adrenaline flowing when we need it. Take a confrontational song like “Animal” and compare it to a reflective song like “Just Breathe”.
These guys have matured into adults and aren’t afraid to show it. I can still go back and listen to their old stuff because it reminds me of certain times in my life (and because they rock), but I feel like we’re still on the same wavelength and their newer stuff reflects where I’m at now. Pearl Jam still rocks, but where as “Animal” was a pure “us vs. them” song, songs like “Just Breathe” are about appreciating what life has given you, and I can relate to that more than the “us vs. them” mentality. They still get aggressive because they’ll always be a rock band with punk rock influences. “Mind Your Manners” from their most recent album “Lightning Bolt” rocks harder than almost everything that’s considered rock today (*cough*Imagine*Dragons*cough*), but it doesn’t sound embarrassing. It doesn’t sound like 65 year old Roger Daltrey singing about teenage wastelands. It doesn’t sound like Lars Ulrich simplifying the drum beats to his own songs because he can’t play that way anymore. It sounds like a group of guys who grew up on this stuff and could still bring it without skipping a beat.
On the opposite end, let’s take a look at Weezer. Their first two records, “The Blue Album” and “Pinkerton”, are undeniably classics. On “The Blue Album” Rivers Cuomo and company crafted a pure pop rock record that dared to sound happier than the post-grunge bands that were populating the airwaves at the time. Who doesn’t sing along to “Buddy Holly” when it comes on the radio? For their second album, “Pinkerton”, Rivers turned inward and churned out a nakedly confessional album that examined love and heartbreak at its most raw, primal level. It spoke to the kids who loved “The Blue Album” that were now teenagers and experiencing love and heartbreak for the first time. It sold a fraction of what “The Blue Album” sold, but it resonated with the kids who stuck with the band. Here, we finally had another Kurt Cobain singing songs that describe exactly how we felt. Would he accompany us into the unknown that is adulthood? No. After what was deemed a failure, Rivers retreated back into the familiar pure pop song styles of “The Blue Album” and never really returned. While those of us who were there on day 1 were now in our late twenties, starting families, losing loved ones, etc., Rivers was still writing songs about first dates and going to the mall. (Seriously. A group of guys in their 40s recorded a song called “In The Mall”). Occasionally he would go back outside that box and look inward as an adult (see “Heart Songs”), but it was rare. Weezer even seemed to acknowledge that their glory years were behind them by embarking on the “Memories Tour”, a tour where they’d take up residency in a city for two nights, play “The Blue Album” in its entirety the first night, and then “Pinkerton” the next. When they came to Orlando, I went to the “Pinkerton” show to appreciate one of the albums that helped me understand teenage heartbreak, and it was kind of awkward to see the band trying to slip back into a mindset that they had surely moved on from as adults.
I think the all time best example of a band growing up with its fans is The Beatles. They started out doing basic ‘boy-meets-girl’ pop songs. Well, basic isn’t the correct word to use. These songs actually had interesting chord changes and impeccable playing that can only be learned from slumming it out in German clubs for night after night. But The Beatles quickly grew tired of that style and started absorbing other influences. First, it was Bob Dylan (see “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”), then it was Indian music, (“Norwegian Wood”), then they just said, “Fuck it” and started doing whatever the hell they wanted, and we got “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The White Album” out of that. By the end of the decade, The Beatles were no longer singing songs like “She Loves You”, they were singing about existentialism (“Across the Universe”), they were singing about finances (“Taxman”), and they were speaking about love…true love (“The End”). The boys with the mop top haircuts had grown into young men who were all too aware of the world around them yet were willing to try anything to tickle their creative fancy.
The only recent band that I can think of that has had a similar career trajectory as fast as The Beatles would be Radiohead. Just compare the music created in seven years, from their debut “Pablo Honey” to 2000’s “Kid A”. They went from a guitar-centric sound heavily inspired by The Smiths and The Pixies to an almost all electronic sound inspired by the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre. Without Thom Yorke’s distinct vocals, one could easily assume these were records made by two different bands. And they just kept going. 2007’s “In Rainbows” is basically “Pablo Honey” for adults. It finds the band returning to a more guitar oriented sound after experimenting with electronics for most of the early 00’s. But lyrically, it’s not an angsty album like “Pablo Honey”. Musically, it’s not aggressive. In their 40s, the band is pondering life, what happens afterwards, and…love. Yes, the guys who broke through with a song called “Creep” were exploring the topic of love in songs like “House of Cards” and “True Love Waits”. But they’re not simple love songs. They explore what that emotion is even supposed to mean.
I don’t mean to diss the approach taken by Nine Inch Nails and Weezer. This is coming from a guy who still gets excited whenever he hears something Star Wars related. And I was just jamming to “The Fragile” the other day. If anything, it lets me know that maybe, somewhere out there, a young kid will pick up one of these new records by the seasoned artists, and maybe that record will speak to them and have the same effect as the earlier albums had on me. Maybe hearing newer bands cite their influences will make these kids want to go check out these bands, like how Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails inspired me to go check out The Meat Puppets and David Bowie’s lesser known work.
I guess I just wish that more bands from my formative years took the journey into adulthood with me. It’s like checking in with an old friend from high school and hearing what they’ve been up to since then. Like you, they’ve gone through some shit, but they’ve come out ok, and you can talk about things that matter to you more now like family and responsibility while still throwing in a few inside jokes from the old days. Otherwise, it’s like meeting up with that old friend from high school who is still wearing all black, black make-up, still living in your hometown, and still pondering why life is so dark. Grow up, dude.