Editor’s Note: We’re republishing this article today in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Nine Inch Nails’ downward spiral from Pretty Hate Machine to Bad Witch.
Trent Reznor, music’s leading purveyor of dread, has been making music as Nine Inch Nails for 30 years now, releasing some of the most visceral, jarring, and candid records the world has ever heard. Throughout those three decades, he’s pushed boundaries and tested limits wherever he could, whether it was by mutating synth-pop into his own signature industrial sound or by simply trying to discover the limits of broadcast television. Even today, Reznor is still testing boundaries, specifically that of expectations as the man who once proclaimed he was “poisoned to [his] rotten core” and “too fucked up to care anymore” has become an acclaimed film composer deftly able to soundtrack anything from a book club thriller to a war documentary.
Across his career, fans have followed Reznor through fits of bleak depression, suicidal flirtations, ambient explorations, religious and political onslaughts, and anxious echoes. Now, it’s time to do it all at once, travelling from the grimmest moments of his discography to the brightest. We’ve combed over all of the albums Nine Inch Nails has to offer (including the long EPs), picking out the lost treasures, best grooves, dynamic moods, memorable lyrics, and even those moments that mirror Reznor’s acclaimed soundtrack work, until we were left with the best representation of what makes Nine Inch Nails so menacingly great. Take a look and explore the darkest and most cerebral part of the human condition.
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.
This piece was made possible by our good friends at Louder Than Life. For tickets to see Nine Inch Nails perform there, click here.
05. Year Zero (2007)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Given the political events that have transpired since, the apocalyptic doomsaying of Bush-era protest music can be difficult to take seriously. But step back into that mid-2000s milieu, and you’ll find an anxious world beset with nightmares of nuclear war, global warming, and spiritual bankruptcy — in other words, a world not so different from today’s. Year Zero channels such nightmares into a sprawling concept album that encompasses not only 16 tracks but also an alternate reality game that brings Trent Reznor’s vision of a post-Wasteland society to life. There’s no such thing as a “feel good” Nine Inch Nails record, but with its intimations of earthly destruction and supernatural comeuppance, this one leans further into the abyss.
One of the beautiful ones: Mid-album track “Meet Your Master” trades in the sloganeering of tracks like “Survivalism” for something altogether more sinister. Its lyrics set the scene for a violent bit of cosmic revenge, but the song itself never arrives at the moment of judgment; instead, it squeals and spasms as if giving birth to a new genre of future-punk. All of this is to say we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and we’re far from the paint-by-numbers alt-rock of predecessor With Teeth.
Crown of shit: “The Greater Good” may not set the world ablaze, but its odd, ringing synthesizers and raw percussive elements evoke the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic bonfire. Year Zero sticks so closely to its messaging that the album sometimes threatens exhaustion, so breaks such as this (as well as the instrumental “Another Version of the Truth”) come as a welcome reprieve.
The perfect drug: For a song about the numbing horror of war, “The Good Soldier” can sure make that ass drop. A grinding bass line is the backbone of the groove, but it’s the filthy guitar riff that lands this one somewhere between a sawmill and a strip club.
Shadow of a shadow: A case can be made that Year Zero is actually its own soundtrack. But if we’re looking for a complement elsewhere in Reznor’s catalog, the logical place to start is his soundtrack to the 2016 climate change documentary Before the Flood. It’s far less apocalyptic-sounding, which goes to show that there are different ways to depict dystopia.
Right where it belongs: “Don’t try to tell me how some power can corrupt a person/ You haven’t had enough to know what it’s like from.” What was once a thinly veiled swipe at George W. Bush is now a fitting epigram for the Trump presidency. Life’s funny like that, you know?
Down in it: Though a notch below Reznor’s best work, Year Zero still holds a decisive place in Nine Inch Nails’ discography. In turning away from the mainstream and toward more uncompromising soundscapes, Reznor began to shape a sustainable blueprint for the next phase of his career. Does Year Zero blatantly steal ideas from some of the most well-trodden dystopian novels and films out there? Sure, but with Nine Inch Nails, it’s always been the mood that matters more than the narrative substance.
04. Broken (1992)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: The ominous instrumental that bisects Broken is titled “Help Me I Am in Hell”, and that’s as good a description of this EP’s mise en scène as any. Reznor’s guided tour begins in the lowest circles of the underworld, where gnashing guitars and tidal waves of percussion all but suck the air out of the sulfuric atmosphere. Within moments, we know we’re not in the same universe that bred the pop-adjacent industrial dance rock of Pretty Hate Machine.
One of the beautiful ones: Reznor squeezes a ridiculous number of headbangers onto this eight-track EP, but none bangs harder or more iconically than “Wish”. The verses’ loud-soft-holy shit dynamics helped usher in a new wave of ‘90s alt-metal, and the angsty, arena-ready lyrics proved that Nine Inch Nails were ready to play to the masses after blowing the doors off Lollapalooza a year prior.
Crown of shit: The Adam and the Ants cover “Physical (You’re So)” replaces the swagger and subtle humor of the original with an atmosphere that’s more darkly sensual. Though not quite a triumph, it’s a twisted, tantalizing preview of the sexual energy that courses through The Downward Spiral.
The perfect drug: With Broken, Reznor set out to create an angsty, almost intentionally ugly record. His success means that Broken is way less groovy than its immediate predecessor. (Listen to them side-by-side, and Pretty Hate Machine standouts “Head Like a Hole” and “Sin” start to sound like Depeche Mode worship by comparison.) With that said, album closer “Suck” gets butts moving with a funky bass lick that bridges the gap between Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
Shadow of a shadow: Broken sounds almost nothing like the work of soundtrack-era Reznor. Such is the force of these songs that it’s almost ludicrous to think of them serving as sonic wallpaper. But Reznor’s extreme desire to break out of his own mold on Broken finds a worthy counterpoint in the furious, all-over-the-place soundtrack he compiled for Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers, which features songs by L7, Dr. Dre, and Leonard Cohen.
Right where it belongs: “Gotta listen to your big-time, hard-line, bad luck, fist-fuck!” Ask Trent Reznor about the proudest accomplishment of his musical career, and he’s likely to cite the time he won a Grammy for a song that says “fist-fuck.” This sneering line in “Wish” may not be his most poetic, but it remains a fan favorite and embodies the punk spirit that distinguishes Broken from the rest of Nine Inch Nails’ catalog.
Down in it: Do not mistake Broken’s brevity for a lack of meat on its bones. To listen to this album is to engage in the sonic equivalent of a 12-round fist fight, and Reznor provides his listeners with only a few fleeting chances to come up for air. Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t win over the masses until The Downward Spiral, but Broken helped them infiltrate the subcultures of punk and metal and pick each apart from the insides.
03. Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Themes of depression and anguish fill this record, but instead of settling for glum confessions, Reznor molds the mood with animated confrontation and spastic vitality. That confrontation manifests as a berserk energy that flows through the record like a power surge, imbuing you with infrequent flashes of joy, fear, and clarity. Nothing is glorified here though as Reznor embraces the ugly and beauty of every emotion, leaving you with a clear idea of what it means to be tortured.
One of the beautiful ones: Though it was the second single from this record after “Down in It”, album opener “Head Like a Hole” stands as the jarring introduction for most fans into the musical world Trent Reznor so freely wants to corrupt. Audacious, combative, stirring, and infectious, it remains one of the true testaments to Reznor’s musical prowess and a sturdy foundation that bolsters all the work that followed. Almost 30 years later, it’s still shocking to hear how menacing he can make a pedantic drumbeat feel and how he can make a simple sound manipulation so uncomfortable that you think an ant colony has infested your headphones.
Crown of shit: The funk bass of “Sanctified” is one of the most surprising gems Pretty Hate Machine contains, and the way the rest of the song oozes around it only cements its greatness. Most striking is the contrast between the humane bass line and inorganic drum machine, giving the song a sense of conflict Reznor is more than eager to expound on vocally. As the song reaches a climax, you’ll hear that vintage Nine Inch Nails sound that ultimately made Reznor a true musical icon.
The perfect drug: Reznor works hard on this record to push synth-pop in a new direction that gives him freedom to contort and exploit the genre’s appeal and potential. “Kinda I Want To” is a perfect example of this, providing a musical blueprint that could have been a hit for Tiffany and Paula Abdul under a (vastly) different producer as it pulsates with the energy that has come to define the radio sound of the ’80s. It may be hard to hear over Reznor’s bellicose vocals and dissonant clashes, but there’s no denying there is a remarkable current pulsating under the surface here.
Shadow of a shadow: It’s hard to imagine something as sonically bombastic as Pretty Hate Machine matching up with a diffusive soundtrack, but the instrumental story of Gone Girl definitely makes a strong case. Both works explore the concept of callous sensibility, with the album focusing on what is left behind and the film examining duplicitous lives bordering on sociopathy. With disregard to time, tracks like “With Suspicion” and “Clue One” from Gone Girl could be viewed as early sketches for the foreboding menace of Pretty Hate Machine.
Right where it belongs: “Gray would be the color if I had a heart.” This rancorous declaration from “Something I Can Never Have” comes from a callous man, torn between agony and apathy, who’s slowly realizing there’s no hope to be found in either euphoria or fulfillment. The emotion and tension that builds through the song suggests there’s still humanity left inside, but this line stalks that observation with relentless despondency.
Down in it: That Pretty Hate Machine is a great record goes without saying, as it houses several spectacular songs and helps challenge industry standards, specifically what a “catchy melody” can and maybe should be. Ultimately, though, this record’s importance isn’t measured in aural quality, but rather the musical impact it had. Infusing glitch and noise sounds with pliant synth-pop structures, Reznor eagerly exposed industrial music to countless listeners. While the sounds of Clock DVA and SPK were probably a bit too much to stomach, it opened up a world of possibility for the genre, showing that its inhuman approach could scrupulously tackle the human condition. Most importantly, along with Doolittle by Pixies, this record helped set the pace and tone of the alt-rock explosion of the ’90s, where the feeling of opaque melancholy that Reznor mastered here would take the mainstream hostage for a brief yet glorious moment.
02. The Fragile (1999)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: Alt-rock in the 1990s was all about building barricades between the fragile self and the outside world — of transforming rock from something to be shared among the masses into a private, brooding, and introspective affair. The Fragile is one of the few albums that managed to have it both ways, embracing the zeitgeist while welcoming in any number of surprising influences, from ‘70s prog rock to turn-of-the-century Impressionism. The mood here may be dour, but it’s anything but stale.
One of the beautiful ones: The seven-minute devotional epic “We’re in This Together” embodies everything that makes The Fragile so great and so frustrating. Excess is the name of the game, and it doesn’t take long to get there. A quiet heartbeat of distorted synthesizers explodes into a chorus that screams “US VS. EVERYBODY” in both a literal and sonic sense. By the time the guitars have blown out the speakers, not only is nothing left on the table, but the table itself is a smoldering heap of ashes.
Crown of shit: A Nine Inch Nail anomaly for more reasons than one, “La Mer” is a stunning piano composition that arrives late on the album’s left side. An interpretation of Claude Debussy’s orchestral work La Mer in the loosest sense imaginable, the track trades in Reznor’s howls and screams for a French Creole verse delivered in near-whispers by guest vocalist Denise Milfort. Though it allegedly rose from a dark period in Reznor’s life, the song is more interesting as a pastiche of classical Impressionism and avant-garde art rock, and it seems to achieve a kind of uneasy serenity after a chaotic middle section.
The perfect drug: A companion piece to “La Mer” in the sense that it shares the same melody, “Into the Void” becomes a very different type of composition when it slides into a sexy synth groove around the one-minute mark. The song’s oft-repeated refrain (“Tried to save myself/ But myself keeps slipping away”) seems a perfect fit for a desperate night at the club, when the main point of dancing is the displacement of the physical self.
Shadow of a shadow: As Nine Inch Nails’ most experimental album, The Fragile makes for an interesting pairing with Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which similarly melds diverse instrumentation to convey fear, anxiety, and the notion of the self gradually slipping away.
Right where it belongs: “And when I suck you off, not a drop will go to waste/ It’s really not so bad, you know once you get past the taste.” This description of fellatio from “Starfuckers, Inc.” takes the cake, offering a harrowing and hilarious visual image on an album whose lyrics too often bask in angsty abstraction.
Down in it: Arriving at the height of nu metal, The Fragile stands apart from its aggro peers of that era thanks to Reznor’s restless, “throw it all at the wall” approach to composition and production. Though its lyrics find the narrator shutting out the world to reassert his sense of self, its sonics betray influences from across the musical spectrum. Similarly, the digital and analog meld in unexpected ways here, creating a sense of being on the threshold of something unnamable at the dawn of the 21st century. As a snapshot of that anxious era, The Fragile stands the test of time.
01. The Downward Spiral (1994)
Stale incense, old sweat, and lies: It doesn’t take a music savant to pick up on The Downward Spiral’s concept even on first listen. The album carefully allows the listen to peer into its world at a distance with infectious bass lines and quaint piano melodies, only to viciously swallow the listener whole with feedback, noise, pummeling rhythm, and Reznor’s shouted croons. While the overt themes of depression, suicide, and drug use coat this record with a sullen feeling, The Downward Spiral is so assertively uncompromising that the album feels far more energizing than any record that has been called gloomy before or since.
One of the beautiful ones: Trent Reznor has famously stated that “Hurt” is now Johnny Cash’s song, due to his cover that has probably reached far more listeners than Reznor’s original version. Cash’s version is undeniably brilliant, but the track is still at its most dramatic and powerful when it concludes The Downward Spiral. After 60 minutes of mostly animalistic fury, Reznor’s stark and introspective lyrics reflecting on the trip down the spiral are harrowingly grim. “I would find a way,” serves as a sharp closing remark and the only sliver of hope that the album ever offers. Perhaps that hopeful feeling lingers and swells, or maybe it just fades out along with the album.
Crown of shit: Considering The Downward Spiral is so highly praised for its cohesiveness and consistency, it’s hard to consider any track underrated. “A Warm Place” snags this category due to its subtle, but essential work as the only real breathing space on the album. The track illustrates Reznor’s sheer mastery of dynamics and is the only beautiful passage of music on The Downward Spiral unperturbed by sudden calamity.
The perfect drug: “March of the Pigs” hits fast and hard. The frantic percussion that opens the track sets the pace for a bass-heavy groove oozing with distortion. The track’s breakneck speed and winding bass lines force the listener to expend some energy by moving in the most wild way imaginable in order to match the song.
Shadow of a shadow: The ambient soundscapes of “A Warm Place” sound more fully expanded upon on the soundtrack of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The music is certainly less driven and aggressive than on The Downward Spiral as a whole, but the soundtrack effectively captures that same unwaveringly bleak feeling that operates within.
Right where it belongs: “What have I become, my sweetest friend?/ Everyone I know, goes away in the end.” This line bluntly confronts the harsh reality of dying alone while leaving the listener with a lot to interpret. Who that “friend” is that the protagonist mentions can be dragged in a variety of logical directions.
Down in it: The Downward Spiral endures as Nine Inch Nails’ crowning achievement. As the gold standard of ’90s industrial, the album has been worshiped and poorly imitated almost non-stop since its release. While it does sound a bit dated today, it serves as a brilliant archive of its time by flawlessly executing its concept and creating an overwhelming atmosphere with feelings that never cease to land. The album’s sinister grooves and raw explosive power feel just as wildly unhinged as ever. This is a rare album that uniquely captures the period it was born out of while subsequently being a record that will likely never stop feeling relatable to young adults that feel a bit out of place and are in need of an outlet for aimless aggression.
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