Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails performs for the crowd at The Palace in Auburn Hills, on Monday. (Jose Juarez / Special to Detroit News)
There was no hesitation on Trent Reznor’s part Monday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Nine Inch Nails frontman put on what was absolutely one of the year’s best concerts with his two-hour “Tension” outing, a vital, gorgeous display of technical brilliance and raw human emotion.
Reznor is touring behind “Hesitation Marks,” Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years. And a good deal of the new album was worked out live, making the show — which unfolded in front of an appreciative crowd of around 7,500 people — a far cry from a nostalgia ploy.
Opening with “Copy of A” with Reznor and his bandmates positioned underneath low-hanging strobe light rigs, the show was a resplendent knockout from the start. And it never let up: With a constantly morphing light show and video display that pushed the edges of technology, the show was a visual feast on par with the best work Nine Inch Nails has ever done. Reznor has set the bar high for himself with his high-tech visual bonanzas, and he has delivered yet again.
Reznor’s keen visual sensibilities made the most of silhouettes, and his bandmates were impeccably lit in front of the stage’s backdrop. The colors Reznor used were pointed: Blues and reds during “All Time Low,” mimicking rising body temperatures at the end; greens during “Survivalism”; yellows during “Disappointed,” which would wipe across the screen and effectively erase the band members, starting anew after each verse.
Musically, the show just as solid, and the addition of two backup singers added a new layer of depth to Nine Inch Nails’ sound. The pair emerged during “All Time Low,” a track off “Hesitation Marks” with a fractured funk groove that makes it among NIN’s sexiest offerings. Playing off the girls, Reznor unabashedly swayed his hips from side to side while singing it, giving classic Reznor lines like “hey! Everything is not okay” a danceable swagger. (Later, a saxophone even appeared during “While I’m Still Here,” so don’t accuse Reznor of being afraid of taking chances with new sounds.)
Gut-punchers like “Survivalism” and “Wish” were treated like a full-on assault, and “Somewhat Damaged” built to a wailing, dejected climax. Reznor’s lyrics are uniformly desolate, yet he’s so clear and communicative with his words he’s able to draw you in to his worldview. He makes a connection out of his disconnection.
The set list pulled in pieces of every era of Nine Inch Nails, giving nods to each of the group’s studio albums. And it’s a testament to Reznor’s staying power that songs like “Terrible Lie,” from 1989’s “Pretty Hate Machine,” were able to stand next to songs from “Hesitation Marks” and not sound dated in any way. Angst can be a boring, one-dimensional emotion, but Reznor’s eternal gloom continues to unspool in interesting ways. His perfectionism and visual know-how certainly don’t hurt matters.
“Hurt” closed the show, with Reznor baring his soul in a near-whisper before a thunderous guitar lacerated through the song and finished out the night. Johnny Cash’s cover of the song was powerful but never let it be said that the song isn’t all the way Reznor’s, and as a closer it encapsulated all the beauty, despair and power of everything that came before it. And it showed that Nine Inch Nails still cuts very deep.