12. The Slip (2008)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies (Mood): Recorded at a blistering pace and released for free without any prior marketing, The Slip doesn’t seem like an album that’s too concerned with introspection. Yet, that’s the general vibe that flows through these 10 tracks, which find Reznor grappling with the thrill and fear of releasing music on his terms. His freedom from major-label constraints is coupled with the anxiety of growing old and irrelevant, lending a hard edge to an album that’s often overlooked in Nine Inch Nails’ deep catalog.
One of the beautiful ones (Best Song): “Demon Seed” is the most fully realized composition on an album that doesn’t always give its best ideas adequate room to breathe. Sprawling across five minutes and set against a vaguely chaotic 6/4 time signature that threatens to spin out of control at any moment, the album closer pulls the listener into its entropy. Stick around for the latter half, which explodes outward in dazzling fashion and then cuts out abruptly, as if to deny the record any sense of clean resolution.
Crown of shit (Most Underrated Song): Among the barest compositions in Reznor’s ouvre, the devotional piano ballad “Lights in the Sky” is easy to skip past in favor of The Slip’s more maximalist fare. But the song’s bleak meditation on death becomes more arresting as you spend time with it, a testament to Reznor’s ability to squeeze incredible mileage from a limited sonic palette.
The perfect drug (Most Danceable Groove): It’s no shock that “Discipline” emerged as the first single from this album. Powered by a relatively simplistic dance beat and seesawing bass riff, the track strips away much of the industrial excess apparent elsewhere on The Slip. In doing so, it recalls the straightforward aggression of Pretty Hate Machine single “Head Like a Hole” even as it contradicts that song’s message of death before discipline.
Shadow of a shadow (Soundtrack Pairing): Though Ghosts I-IV is a more obvious predecessor to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s 2010 score for The Social Network, the music on The Slip channels the same competing impulses of urgency and ambivalence about what the future holds.
Right where it belongs (Best Lyric): “You chip away the old version of you / You’d be surprised at what you can do / I’m safe in here, Irrelevant / Just like they said.” This lyric from the first verse of “Echoplex” neatly encapsulates three of the major themes Reznor contends with on The Slip: His newfound commercial and artistic independence, his fear of aging, and the disembodied isolation brought on by both.
Down in it (Analysis): Though perhaps more notable for its means of distribution than for its actual music, The Slip finds Reznor consolidating some of his strongest qualities as a songwriter on an album that encapsulates two decades’ worth of evolution. It’s a focused, measured work, never quite reaching the highs (or plumbing the depths, as it were) of The Downward Spiral or The Fragile. But it’s clear that Reznor is answering to his own impulses here, and his struggle to place himself in a changing rock landscape occasionally yields thrilling results.
11. With Teeth (2005)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: After a tumultuous decade filled with alcoholism and drug use, With Teeth was Reznor’s attempt at chronicling his path toward sobriety. What resulted was his most straightforward rock record to date. The album is very digestible by Nine Inch Nails standards (13 Tracks, 56 minutes), but suffers from a lack of consistency.
One of the beautiful ones: “The Hand That Feeds” is by all measurables a traditional rock song, but it’s a great one. What the track sacrifices in the band’s classic distortion is more than made up for by its brilliant writing and vicious chorus. The track is evidence enough that Reznor hardly needs power electronics and effects pedals to make an aggressive and poignant track. Largely a criticism of the Bush administration, Reznor uses imagery of a bloody hand in his writing to attack an administration hellbent on preserving its wealth with a dangerous foreign policy. Reznor hardly writes protest songs, but this track proves he’s more than game for them.
Crown of shit: Nine Inch Nails have consistently created excellent album openers, but when recounting them, “All the Love in the World” is rarely mentioned. The track is a musical chameleon that traverses rock, piano ballad, and trip-hop, creating an electro-rock masterpiece. Reznor’s vocals range from soft to strained and are always matched by the mood of the track. “All the Love in the World” is a perfect example of everything Nine Inch Nails can do well. Plus, any track with Dave Grohl on percussion is bound to be good.
The perfect drug: “Only” is the best radio friendly rock song Reznor has ever written. The track’s booming chorus of “There is no you/ There is only me” on top of an infectious synth lead is perfect for bouncing in place and shouting along. The synth lingers throughout the track as the fulcrum of the rhythm and allows the song to work effectively solely on the strength of its undeniable groove.
Shadow of a shadow: Although it predates With Teeth by nearly 10 years, the Quake soundtrack could serve as a nice pair in terms of highlighting how different Trent Reznor can be as an artist. Quake had mostly a dark, ambient soundtrack with an industrial flair. With Teeth completely lacks any of the ambient influences that Reznor typically draws from and is relatively free of the industrial sound he helped pioneer. After listening to With Teeth, the Quake soundtrack will serve as a nice reminder of how ambitious Reznor is as an artist who often rejects a trending sound.
Right where it belongs: “I think I used to have a purpose/ Then again, that might have been a dream.” For such a harsh indictment of one’s self, this line is remarkably simple. As we age and our purposes shift, there is often a period of being unsure about what should come next. This passage describes how painful and crippling that feeling can truly be.
Down in it: With Teeth would probably be considered a solid record for a middling mid-2000s rock band, but Nine Inch Nails were already so much more than that. It was strange to hear Reznor create something so predictable and boilerplate for the era when he had been pushing boundaries so successfully in the ’90s. With Teeth is hardly a record to skip over. It contains a few great tracks that still serve as essentials in the band’s live set. When considered as a whole, though, it is probably Nine Inch Nails’ most forgettable release.
10. Hesitation Marks (2013)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Settling for a pensive examination, Reznor comes off contrite and existential on this record when surveying the sonic ground he’s covered in his career. You could imagine this record being born from a late-night obsession, one that’s fueled by an anxious dissatisfaction that comes only from an artist shackled by boundless and restless talent. It’s a relatable feeling — looking back over your past with a new critical eye in a way that invites dejection into your world. The difference here is that Reznor is able to amplify it to imperial heights in a way that almost obfuscates any disparaging revelations.
One of the beautiful ones: The spiraling masterpiece of “Copy of A” ultimately sets the lyrical and musical tone for Hesitation Marks and raises the bar on late-career expectations of Reznor. It’s a true classic in the Nine Inch Nails discography, even if it is almost 20 years removed from the heyday of Reznor’s fanatical adulation. Dancey, contemplative, catchy, apprehensive, and augmentative, Reznor utilizes every sharpened musical knife he owns to slice deep and rid you of your toxins in a purifying aural detox.
Crown of shit: In a lyrical and musical sense, “Running” is a jarring and noxious offering that shows Reznor is still more than willing to accost his listeners with an uncomfortable song. There’s mystery in the lyrics — is the singer someone to be comforted or abhorred? — and that mystery is veiled by the fantastic rhythmic layering and mélange of diverse sounds that distract you from finding your answer. Like any good mystery, there’s plenty of twists and turns here as Reznor shies away from a logical progression with plenty of memorable noise.
The perfect drug: With a clap-beat and cagey melody, “Satellite” is the song that best suits any type of musical gambol. There are plenty of other great grooves found on Hesitation Marks, but they all fit the mold of a binary pace, inviting the listener to sway and pump rather than break out into a multi-dimensional rollick like the infectious rhythm of “Satellite” compels you to perform.
Shadow of a shadow: Hesitation Marks being a reflection on the past work of Nine Inch Nails pretty much connects it to Reznor’s soundtrack for the reflective documentary The Vietnam War, as both look back on decades-old material with somber deliberation and creative ennui. Discordant and uncomfortable, album opener “The Eater of Worlds” could easily fit into the soundtrack’s minimal gloom, while “Other Ways to Get to the Same Place” from the soundtrack could easily serve as an elegiac intermission for the album.
Right where it belongs: “I’ve heard all I need to know/ Your voice in fucking echo stereo.” This harsh yet poignant line from “All Time Low” pops out of a record that shies away from lyrical gems, instead embracing visceral mantras and terse remarks. So much of Hesitation Marks feeds off of obscured emotion, making this line of direct frustration a welcome breath of fresh and angry air.
Down in it: By design, Reznor is at his least ambitious here, but by settling down, he’s able to execute grandiose moments that easily complement his greatest works. With a new lyrical approach, he shies away from the derivative offerings one might expect and instead builds upon his legacy with brazen structures. The unrelenting struggle that fills all of his records is still here, but it’s a struggle that’s migrated from angsty depression and arrived in a land full of abstract rumination. Referencing the left-over marks of suicide in the album title only furthers the notion that Reznor has moved past his sorrow here, even if his past decay is still audibly evident.
09. Not the Actual Events (2017)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Reznor once again teams up with Atticus Ross for this short EP, which sounds like the classic ’90s Nine Inch Nails sound coated in a frozen layer of metallic sheen. The result is a collection of tracks that ended up more like fan service than a release looking to challenge or alienate the band’s loyal supporters.
One of the beautiful ones: “Dear World” is the most composed track on Not the Actual Events. Featuring a few eerie synth leads that weave in and out of each other, this track is the only moment on this EP that strikes that perfect balance of new sonic exploration with the band’s ’90s industrial foundation. Like many of the best tracks the band has released, “Dear World” is equal parts beautiful and elegantly disorderly. That formula is packaged with enough modern flair to make a new full-length from the band enticing in a greater way than just nostalgia.
Crown of shit: “She’s Gone Away” sounds like the sister track to “Reptile” off The Downward Spiral. This track could even be a a Downward Spiral B-side, but it’s still a pretty good B-side. Reznor’s uncanny ability to create a downright chaotic mood with pummeling percussion and wild electronics seemingly at war with each other is on full display here.
The perfect drug: The opening two minutes of “The Idea of You” is mostly spent transitioning between different ideas that feel loosely connected. At the track’s climax, these ideas all come smashing together for an upbeat and perfectly paced conglomerate. The track’s final minute of danceable industrial rock comes as a surprise on the fourth track of an EP that doesn’t offer anything else like this groove before this moment — in classic Reznor fashion.
Shadow of a shadow: 2016 was a busy year for Reznor. Along with Not the Actual Events, he found time to contribute toward the soundtracks of two films. What the soundtrack to Before the Flood and this EP share is a clear focus on texture. Both releases evoke an atmosphere of cold tranquility that is unmistakably Reznor and Ross.
Right where it belongs: “Everything is getting unfamiliar now/ Trajectory in decline/ We become obsolete/ One frame at a time.” Reznor’s lyrics have always felt raw and vulnerable, but this was a first instance of him directly tackling his age. As a refreshing new topic, it would be exciting to hear him explore the aging process and how it affects his worldview further.
Down in it: Nine Inch Nails were going for a new sound, but not in a radical way like with Ghosts. In an attempt to slightly tweak their ’90s rock roots for a more modern feel, what results is a release that came off a tad uninspired. For the first time in their career, the band was retreading old ground. Like a rushed coat of paint, the old palate was still visible and left listeners confused about where the project’s trajectory was taking Nine Inch Nails. This is by no means a bad release, and these tracks do have some exciting moments, but it was disappointing to finally have a Nine Inch Nails project that can deservedly be labeled safe.
08. Add Violence (2017)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: The music here focuses on personal decay and lets it play out in real time starting with the first decortication and ending with a visceral atrophy that is downright mesmerizing. With a familiar sound, it helps make this corrosion feel not just relatable but welcoming and helps the 30-year-old band sound as fresh as they did when “Head Like a Hole” was first making waves in the industry.
One of the beautiful ones: Add Violence could contain four songs of white noise followed by “The Background World”, and it still could be considered one of the more formidable entries in Nine Inch Nails’ storied discography. Though opener “Less Than” can be viewed as a companion piece to Hesitation Marks heavyweight “Copy of A”, “The Background World” is a conceptual successor, gorgeously elaborating on the proliferation of lifeless replication to the point of unrecognizable depravity. It’s by far the longest (non-remix) song the band has ever released, but even if we remove half of the runtime, it would still be one of the band’s most riveting songs to date.
Crown of shit: Sultry and afflicted, “The Lovers” is a scopic piece of music, tethering an unsettling spoken poem to yearning, prolonged vocalizations with an anxious, yet coercive atmosphere. What helps build that atmosphere is the remarkable use of the sound manipulation machine The Luminist Garden, which amplifies the tension in the song, helping the sound reveal brutal emotion as startling as it is endearing.
The perfect drug: Add Violence contains only one real danceable groove in “Less Than”, but Reznor and Ross focus all their energy on making sure it’s one that can easily stand out in the Nine Inch Nails catalog. The song opens up sounding like an unearthed Depeche Mode jam, one that corrupts the melody of “Just Can’t Get Enough” while amplifying the menace of “Personal Jesus”. It quickly moves into familiar Nine Inch Nails territory, though, with an intense thrash that climaxes into a beautiful reminder of what made industrial rock such an unforgettable force in the musical world.
Shadow of a shadow: Though there are vague lyrical references to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the EP’s emotional decomposition is perhaps best mirrored within the sociopathic descent of Gone Girl, specifically the scenes where Amy callously schemes to return to her old life. Revisit the scenes where she carries out her savage ruse, and you’ll hear perfect opportunities for “The Background World”, “This Isn’t the Place”, and even “Not Anymore” to enhance the film.
Right where it belongs: “Shut up, silence/ Add a little violence/ And offend and pretend and defend and demand my compliance” from “Less Than”. It doesn’t matter how you interpret this line or how it fits in with the overall theme of the EP — what matters is that it’s a rousing line that instantly seizes your attention, something that Reznor will keep a solid grip on until the EP has finally decided to end.
Down in it: Add Violence bounces back from the noisy indulgence of Not the Actual Events and returns Nine Inch Nails to the vanguard of protean sorrow. It’s a work rooted in personal decay, but not shackled as it can easily affix itself to feelings of political laments (“Less Than”), anxious intimacy (“The Lovers”), or capitalist disobedience (“This Isn’t the Place”). Even with a nearly 12-minute industrial monument, this EP is impressively compact, allowing the band the ability to hone in on their vision and pull it off effortlessly. Worth noting, too, that this EP followed an especially prolific period in the band members’ career, letting you know that the 50-year-old Reznor is still as sharp as ever despite being pulled in multiple directions.
07. Ghosts I-IV (2008)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Ghosts is Reznor at his most minimal. Often compaired to the works of Erik Satie or Brian Eno, these four movements spread across 36 tracks exist in stark contrast to the rest of the Nine Inch Nails discography. Abandoning any concept of dynamic range, Reznor and Atticus Ross combine for a remarkably dense collection of dark and brooding soundscapes that has found itself as the most divisive record among fans. Ghosts I-IV has been called beautiful, boring, recklessly self-absorbed, and everything in between.
One of the beautiful ones: There is nothing resembling a single on this record or even a moment that is supposed to exist outside of the tracks as a whole. Still, “31 Ghosts IV” sticks out as a track with a bit of classic Nine Inch Nails guitar work with its reliable distortion tone and pounding drumbeat. Its rhythmic drone is one of the few moments on Ghosts that the listener can actually bob their head to.
Crown of shit: Depending on who you ask, perhaps this entire project qualifies for Crown of Shit. “14 Ghosts II” remains a track that deserves more shine among fans due to its accessibility. The track features a winding mandolin-like sound alongside strong percussion that emits feelings of traveling in the American Southwest. This track could fit excellently as the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy film or even paired alongside some of the music of Earth that is inspired by similar themes. This is one of the few track on Ghosts that elicits any feelings of urgency.
The perfect drug: “06 Ghosts I” features an infectious marimba melody that carries on throughout the track. As synths build and disintegrate throughout the song, that melody remains as the only thing the listener can grasp onto with any sense of permanence. Its groove echoes and seems to have a way of worming its way back into memory. Though it’s hardly something one would probably call groovy, it has that infectious quality that keeps listeners returning.
Shadow of a shadow: The logical connection is between Ghosts and Reznor’s soundtrack to The Social Network. In many ways, Ghosts I-IV were experimental tune-ups for the partnership between Reznor and Ross before taking on a movie soundtrack together. Even “14 Ghosts II” was rearranged for The Social Network soundtrack. The records have a similar mood and in a way feel like conjoined twins that were successfully separated. Listening to Ghosts I-IV and The Social Network soundtrack back to back will require a large chunk of time and some serious patience.
Right where it belongs: “Get the door, get the door.” Ghosts I-IV is entirely instrumental with a few vocal samples. The distorted shouts of this line from the film The Mothman Prophecies is coated in heavy effects and repeated as part of the groove. It’s the only real distinguishable lyric on the record. If you’re looking for Reznor’s best lyrics, you won’t find any here!
Down in it: When listing Nine Inch Nails records, Ghosts I-IV will undoubtedly be the release with the most variance. This release sounds nothing like any other Nine Inch Nails release and at times feels more like an unfinished experiment than a carefully crafted piece of minimalism or drone. Still Ghosts I-IV is riddled with concrete ideas and unique sounds. The downbeat, somber mood is uniquely Reznor, and the album is effective in terms of creating a concept, even if that concept can feel adrift at times and with no conceivable conclusion. The record is full of unique melodies and NIN-like instrumental passages that are worth discovering. Ghosts I-IV depicts Reznor as an artist with seemingly infinite ideas and as someone with a knack for finding ways to tie those ideas to a single mood.
06. Bad Witch (2018)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Armed with a brash, newly renovated sound, there is a feeling of reparation in the music here, but Reznor often retreats back to a misanthropic world view in a way that connects this trilogy of EPs (or whatever). It’s music that yearns to scream, but knows how futile doing so will be, as screaming has gotten nothing accomplished in the world these last few years. Still, Reznor provides plenty of bombastic moments, even if he seems most content exploring the dissolution of an ambient flutter to close out the record.
One of the beautiful ones: It’s not Nine Inch Nails’ most ambitious song, nor its best reinvention, but “God Break Down the Door” is exactly the sharp left turn you desire from Reznor at this stage of his career. It’s a stunning work reminiscent of so many iconic musicians, yet it still reverberates impeccably in Reznor’s nebulous anxiety. Cryptically confrontational and detrimentally medicinal, it thoroughly matches the essence of Nine Inch Nails’ work while exotically outgrowing the glory days of their sound.
Crown of shit: In a record essentially containing three instrumental tracks, it’d be hard to overlook Bad Witch’s more straight-forward offerings, but it feels like the abrasive discomfort of “Ahead of Ourselves” is exactly the type of deformed grandeur one could forget when discussing this record. Reznor fully exploits the meaning of an infectious hook here with an earworm that’s as catchy as it is epidemic and coerces you to embrace the duplicitous structure in all its turbulent glory.
The perfect drug: In addition to being the album’s best song, “God Break Down the Door” has a remarkable dance groove to it. It feels rooted in ’90s big beat, comfortable on any mix containing Groove Armada and Dub Pistols, but with enough adventure within to be regarded as something fresh and new in 2018. Even the humming delivery of “remove the pain and push it back in” feels rooted in dance music, making this a perfect song for your next illicit warehouse party.
Shadow of a shadow: Though connected through only meager, fraying threads, Bad Witch feels tethered to Reznor’s production work on Lost Highway. You have the saxophone work of “Driver Down”, which feels right at home in Bad Witch’s amalgam nest, as well as Bowie bookending the soundtrack, which seems fitting considering his broad influence on Bad Witch’s most imperative moments. Play them back to back and you’ll definitely feel they are sonically opposed, yet somehow spiritually coherent.
Right where it belongs: “Not quite as clever as we think we are/ Knuckle dragging animal/ When we could have done anything/ We wound up building this” from “Ahead of Ourselves” is as smart a critique on the current climate as you’re going to find in today’s music. Of course, it takes Reznor to prudently shift the blame from “them” to “us,” and he does so with his trademark, self-deprecating candor.
Down in it: Bad Witch concludes Nine Inch Nails’ trilogy (2016’s Not the Actual Events and 2017’s Add Violence) in an intoxicating manner, strengthening the connection between the previous releases while also forging a new path that’s perhaps more provocative and exhilarating than anything Reznor has done in the last 10 years. It’s a work so great that it almost bumps up the other two entries in the trilogy, offering up existential clarifications, musical addendums, and lyrical conclusions that make you wonder if it was all outlined before the first EP was even recorded. While the music feels new and different, there’s no doubt the band borrows a lot from their contemporaries, specifically David Bowie, who can be felt in the opening drawl of “Over and Out” and the avant-garde spirit of “Play the Goddamned Part”. But those influences never overpower the outstanding direction Reznor has set forth here, one that’s clearly got its sights locked on an uncharted future, instead of the exploited past.
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