Remember Who You Are
Retrenching with Nine Inch Nails and Aimee Mann

Bit of a ramble this time. With spoilers. Just warning you.

So I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this week. Twice.

Let me back up. For many, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide books are just silly sci-fi romps, but for me they’ve always held a special place. I talked about my love for Adams’ writing in my eulogy for him, nearly four years ago. I first read the Hitchhiker’s books in fifth grade, and was awed by Adams’ twisting of language into new forms. He did this mostly for comedic effect, but the sentences he conjured made me think about words and word placement and emphasis and double meanings for the first time. I think every writer has that moment when the possibility of language opens up and unfolds, and for me it was the first few chapters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Specifically, I remember marveling at the sequence in which Arthur Dent, everyman extraordinaire, and Ford Prefect, alien from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelguese, talk the man trying to raze Arthur’s house into lying down in front of the bulldozer, thus preventing the demolition, whilst Arthur and Ford pop down to the pub. It was a deft display of illogical logic, a tone-setter for the book. Plus, it was really funny, even for a fifth grader raised on poop jokes.

That bit is gone from the movie. Or rather, the basic framework of that scene remains, but the central idea is significantly altered – instead of using wit and wordplay to temporarily save Arthur’s house, in the film Ford distracts the construction workers with beer. It’s a lower-common-denominator kind of joke now, but it still sets the tone for what follows. Most of the wit in Hitchhiker’s has been replaced with slapstick, the complex jokes replaced with one-liners, the difficult interactions scrapped for narrative drive and romance. It’s been Hollywood-ized, sanitized for your protection.

The first time I saw the film, all I could think about was how little of Adams’ spirit and style had translated, despite his having written at least one draft of the screenplay. Sam Rockwell is not playing Zaphod, he’s playing some mad cowboy who calls himself Zaphod. The Infinite Improbability Drive doesn’t just change you into things over and over – that’s predictable, and therefore probable, which misses the whole point. Deep Thought does not watch cartoons. Marvin would never say, “I’m a robot, not a refrigerator.” Things like that kept nagging at me, and I couldn’t enjoy what was there on screen.

The second time, I tried to see it as a fun summer movie, and it worked much better for me. It’s still not a great movie, but it does have its charms, and its own funny bits. Roughly half of the film’s plot is new, with fascinating additions like the Point-of-View Gun, and while most of it could have been handled better than it was, it’s a diverting afternoon at the movies. Alan Rickman is perfect as the voice of Marvin, and Bill Nighy nails his bit role as Slartibartfast. The sequences on the Magrathea factory floor are brilliantly conceived as well. I can imagine Douglas Adams falling out of his chair at how beautiful they look.

And the truth is that the Hitchhiker’s story has changed dramatically in each of its incarnations. It started as a radio comedy, and later morphed into the books, a television series, a comic book, a stage show, and a computer game, all of which bear some, but not all, resemblance to the original. Change is the constant with Adams’ work, and if this light, fun movie gets more people to read the books, then that’s fantastic.

But here’s the thing that bothers me. The basic story of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is one that lends itself to weightless comedy pretty easily, and the movie makes a fluffy go at a feel-good sci-fi romance romp. All fine, except that misses the whole tone of Adams’ writing, which is a lot deeper and harsher than people credit it. Adams was a fatalist, his humor dark and depressing, if you stop to think about it. Again and again in the Hitchhiker’s books, the magical and unexplainable is shown to actually be coldly logical and oddly horrible. Just look at the meaning for life on Earth – Do we have a purpose? Yes. It’s to make pan-dimensional mice rich and famous. Life was better when we didn’t know that.

The movie is not fatalistic. The ending is happy – Arthur gets the girl, the Earth is rebuilt just as it was, and though no one learns the Ultimate Question, no one seems to care. The film’s last line seems to suggest that the filmmakers haven’t read the second book, so I wonder what they will think when they get to the end of Mostly Harmless (the fifth and last book) and see that Adams ended his saga coldly, logically, and finally, with a billion questions unanswered.

Which brings up an interesting topic (well, interesting to me) – at what point have you changed the meaning and tone of a concept like Hitchhiker’s Guide so that it no longer resembles the original? The film is quite obviously a Hitchhiker’s movie – we have Arthur and Ford and the Vogons and the destruction of Earth, and all the trappings that one would associate with the book, given a surface-level reading. But in a very real sense, it is not a Hitchhiker’s movie, because the very thing that the books are about is absent from the film. How much can one deviate from the basic idea and still deliver the goods?

Musicians struggle with this idea all the time. Established artists continually balance the desire to evolve with the need to maintain the recognizable core of their work. If you evolve too quickly, you lose your audience, but if you don’t evolve, you get bored and die, creatively speaking. For some artists, that’s not a concern – look at Frank Zappa’s insanely varied career, which jumped from ‘50s doo-wop to dissonant orchestral works to free jazz, album to album. But for some it’s a big deal. Imagine if the new Dave Matthews Band album sounded like Reign in Blood. Even if that’s what Dave really wanted to play, no one would go for it.

Take Nine Inch Nails as a for-instance. When Trent Reznor burst onto the scene in 1989, all fishnets and angst, he brought with him a new kind of industrial music. It can’t be overstated just how important Reznor’s personality and songwriting skill were to the impact of Pretty Hate Machine, as even a cursory jaunt through the scores of imitators that cropped up shortly thereafter will attest. Here was thinking, feeling, bleeding humanity dressed up in machines, a cold and abrasive shell housing a beating, broken heart.

What some seemed to miss was Reznor’s impeccable sonic craftsmanship – he has since dismissed Pretty Hate Machine as low-budget and tinny, and his later records prove him right. He’s been on a constant evolution since his debut, and considering he’s only managed four full-length albums in 16 years, such craft obviously takes time. 1994’s The Downward Spiral made him a star, despite its intense depth, narrative complexity, and experimental nature, and he took that as license to run with the ball.

But 1999’s double-disc opus The Fragile left a lot of fans in the dust. Here was a similar complexity and narrative thread, but here also was the most un-Nine Inch Nails material Reznor had yet released. Ambient instrumentals, marching band music, oceanic ballads, and real push and pull between the electronic and the organic sides of his sound, all wrapped up in impeccably labored-over sonic constructions that puzzle on first listen, but unfold over time. But that’s time that many fans didn’t want to put into this record, and despite a strong first-week showing, The Fragile fizzled.

Thing is, the album was amazing. I liked it for the very reason many hated it – it journeyed well beyond the accepted notions of Nine Inch Nails music. Reznor seemed to have answered his question about how far he could go without shedding his audience, however, and now he’s back with his most musically conservative record ever, With Teeth. And there’s no way that this isn’t a calculated, modulated, graphed-out attempt to regain the Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine fans.

Given that cynical premise, though, the record is actually quite good. As a return to the “classic” Nine Inch Nails sound, it’s a sequel to the first half of Spiral, and had it been released in 1996, it probably would have capitalized on the success of that album. Reznor throws some curve balls – opener “All the Love in the World” is hushed, until it morphs into a disco-beat vocal collage, and “Beside You In Time” manages the neat trick of being a pulsing dirge. But mostly, we get big beats (courtesy of Dave Grohl), loud guitars, and screaming Trent, and if that’s what you’re looking for in your NIN, then you’ll love this.

I don’t love it, but that’s just because the artistic progression Reznor seemed to be on was a fascinating one for me. But then, what was he going to do – a quadruple album with 40-minute songs? Coming back to earth was the right thing, of course. It just shouldn’t have taken more than five years to make an album that sounds like 1994. The disc even closes with the next installment in the “Something I Can Never Have” / “Hurt” saga, “Right Where It Belongs,” and while it’s an affecting little ballad, I can’t help thinking that I’ve heard it before.

There’s another issue, too – Reznor delivered musically, coming up with some of his better melodies and riffs, but once again, it sounds like he scoured Livejournal for lyrical ideas. Stripped of the dramatic flow of his past two albums, Reznor’s words just sound like random bitching here. “The more I stay in here, the more I disappear.” “Feel the hollowness inside of your heart.” “I can feel me start to fade away.” And on and on. He got by with this stuff when he was telling stories, but I just don’t buy it in this first-person confessional sense anymore. Probably the only honest lyric on the record comes on “You Know What You Are,” when he screams, “You better take a good look ‘cause I’m full of shit.”

But NIN fans don’t care about all that. With Teeth is exactly what Reznor said it would be – 13 short, simple songs. The record is so skeletal that he even designed a minimalist package to go with it, the only liner notes being a production credit and a web address. This is Reznor’s back-to-basics effort, and he recaptures the core of his sound well. But he’s also come up with the first Nine Inch Nails album that doesn’t take us anywhere new. After a five-year absence, that’s a little disappointing.

Aimee Mann has the exact opposite problem. Her fourth album, Lost in Space, sounded so much like her third, Bachelor #2, and her work on the Magnolia soundtrack that many critics (including me) accused her of stagnation. Mann’s signature is the well-written sad ballad, and most of her songs are great in exactly the same ways. Even impeccable craft can get boring after a while if there’s no variation – I call that the Rush Principle – and Mann’s craft is always impeccable.

It’s hard not to see The Forgotten Arm, her fifth album, as an attempt to shake things up. Mann is a natural storyteller, having populated most of her songs with desperate characters clinging to each other, so a concept album seems a logical next step. The Forgotten Arm (the title is a boxing term for an unseen knockout punch) is the tale of a washed-up boxer named John, recently back from Vietnam, and the love of his life, named Caroline. The two of them split up, deal with life’s troubles (including John’s alcoholism), and get back together. You got it – it’s two more desperate characters clinging to each other.

Mann also hired guitarist Joe Henry to produce the record, and he gives it a rough, raw feel. This is perhaps the best-sounding Mann album since Whatever, especially when compared to the relatively chilly Lost in Space. The guitars positively crackle, and Mann’s voice is in fine form. Henry helped Mann rework her formula just enough that she sounds revitalized, even though she’s just doing what she does here.

And what she does is write great songs. If you ignore the story (which is easy to do), you’ll find another 12 sad, lovely numbers here that could belong to no one but Aimee Mann. The narrative forces two of the weaker songs to the front – “Dear John” is a slight opener with a decent hook, and “King of the Jailhouse” is just that much too slow that it becomes ponderous. But once you get past them, you’re in a stretch of songs (from track three to track eight) that very few living pop songwriters could match. Elvis Costello, Andy Partridge, maybe Neil Finn, and maybe Mann’s husband Michael Penn, but very few others.

And it’s not like the other songs suck, either. “That’s How I Knew the Story Would Break My Heart” is a lovely piano ballad that comes alive at the second chorus, and “I Can’t Help You Anymore” is another classic. Closer “Beautiful” is just that, even if it ends a little abruptly. But the meat of the album is in that killer three-to-eight stretch, which includes “Goodbye Caroline” and “Going Through the Motions,” two of Mann’s most compelling rockers. It also includes “Little Bombs,” one of the saddest tunes she has written, which centers on the line, “Life just kind of empties out.”

Lyrically, Mann is in familiar territory, but the story she is telling adds focus. “I’ll get a pen and make a list, and give you my analysis, but I can’t write this story with a happy ending,” she sings in “I Can’t Help You Anymore,” and she could be talking about her own work. “Beautiful,” the finale, is gloriously bittersweet, our two protagonists discovering that they’re not meant to be, but they will always love each other. “I wish you could see it too, how I see you,” she sings at the end, and there’s no more to say. Mann succeeds in painting an extended, heartbreaking portrait – so well, in fact, that Paul Thomas Anderson should film these songs.

The Forgotten Arm uses its concept and its punchier production to bring out the core of Aimee Mann’s appeal. She’s changed her modus operandi here just enough that you remember why you loved her work in the first place. While this record doesn’t quite have the 100% success rate of some of her earlier ones, it proves that she’s not in a holding pattern. If you were put off by the icy veneer of Lost in Space, this one is warmer and more immediate, but still wonderfully heartsick and sorrowful at its center. Capturing that is the difference between a great album and a great Aimee Mann album, and she’s managed to evolve without losing that spirit.

At the end of the year, I will not be surprised if I find out that I bought half of my Top 10 List in the last two weeks. I’ve already talked about the Choir, Aimee Mann and Ben Folds, and next week I’ll get to Ryan Adams and the Eels. And after that, Weezer, the Levellers, Audioslave, Girlyman and a bunch of others. No breaks in sight.

See you in line Tuesday morning.