Nine Inch Nails at the Aragon

Though he certainly has weathered his share of trying times–epic battles with substance abuse and wars with record labels chief among them–at age 44, Trent Reznor arguably stands taller and prouder today than any of his alternative-era peers.

Twenty-one years after he founded Nine Inch Nails in Cleveland, Reznor not only has avoided creative paralysis or resorted to empty nostalgia, he’s made some of the most inventive music of his career in recent years, and he’s done it independently on the Net, working hard to create a new model for artists to gainfully distribute their recordings.

Now, like all too few rockers who’ve tired of the tour/record/tour/record grind, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is going out at the top of his game with a final handful of relatively intimate shows on the “Wave Goodbye” tour, which pulled into the Aragon Ballroom for the first of two sold-out shows Friday night.

The current and final version of Nine Inch Nails–Reznor, guitarist Robin Finck, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and drummer Ilan Rubin–hit the stage hard at 8:40 p.m. with ferocious versions of “Wish” and “Last,” both from the 1993 album “Broken.”

“This isn’t meant to last/This is for right now,” Reznor sang in the latter. But as the two-hour, twenty-minute set made clear with a diverse and rewarding tour of his rich catalog, his music has indeed stood the test of time, and it’s likely to endure for quite a few years to come, even if the band as we’ve come to know it no longer exists to deliver it live.

Throughout its history, some critics and fans focused on the group’s theatrical stage shows: the assault of airport runway lights, the billowing clouds of fog and the star’s angry eruptions that sent keyboards and guitars flying–all tricks present at its penultimate Chicago show.

Others lauded the band’s distinctive sonics, and deservedly so, given Reznor’s creativity in building a unique palette of digital and traditional rock instruments that drew on elements of punk, thrash-metal and industrial dance music–with an acknowledged debt to Chicago’s Wax Trax label in the ’80s–combining to create something new and hard to categorize, part organic and part alien avant garde.

But as Johnny Cash famously illustrated with his stripped-down acoustic cover of “Hurt,” the real heart of Nine Inch Nails’ appeal is Reznor’s powerfully emotional songwriting. And he delivered an absurdly generous helping of it on Friday before closing his first Aragon show with that signature tune.

From the ultra-aggressive ’90s modern-rock radio hits “March of the Pigs,” “Closer” and “Head Like a Hole,” to a sampling of the swirling, moody, atmospheric/progressive-rock tracks from “The Fragile” (1999) and “The Slip” (2008), to out-of-left-field rarities such as “Banged and Blown Through,” a track from “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!,” the 2007 album he released by his friend, rapper Saul Williams, Reznor touched on every period and style of the band’s long evolution.

Late in the show, the group was joined for three songs by former Bauhaus singer and Goth-rock progenitor Peter Murphy. As a nod to a musical influence, his cameo was a nice gesture. But it also was unnecessary: Reznor didn’t need the extra undead star power, and Nine Inch Nails had long since made an impressive and unforgettable farewell statement.

Opening the show was the Danish quartet Mew, which devalued its enigmatic shoegazer psychedelia by overstaying its welcome onstage and playing too long, which only emphasized its all-too-obvious debts to Iceland’s Sigur Ros.

Listen to Trent Reznor discuss his reasons for ending Nine Inch Nails, the band’s rich musical past and his own creative future with me and co-host Greg Kot on Chicago Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions” by podcasting or streaming our archived interview from last June here.

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