Pretty Hate Machine (TVT Records ‘89) Rating: B+
Though he's not the creator of industrial music, Trent Reznor (who pretty much is Nine Inch Nails, or at least he was back then) is one of its most imaginative practitioners. He’s also the person most responsible for bringing that particular form of harsh dance music into the mainstream. Like Stevie Wonder or Prince before him, Reznor is hardly hindered by his one-man band approach, immediately producing an outstanding 1-2 punch with “Head Like A Hole” and “Terrible Lie,” both of which became instant underground classics. The former song features pounding rhythms and a common Reznor lyrical theme (the battle for control), while the latter tune contains an unforgettable synthesizer hook and memorable angst ridden lyrics like “I really don’t know who I am in this world of piss.” Another album highlight is “Something I Can Never Have,” a cold, broodingly beautiful piano ballad about hopeless longing and bitter regret (“everywhere I look you’re all I see, just a fading f***ing reminder of who I used to be”), while fast and furious dance beats propel the album’s other standout track, “Sin.” However, the other six songs here fail to distinguish themselves from one another, solid though most of them are. Also, Reznor’s one-dimensional, self-pitying anthems of alienation (which make The Cure’s Robert Smith seem positively jubilant by comparison) can get wearying after awhile despite his inventive use of synthesizers and odd clanging noises. Fortunately, Reznor shows off a catchy pop sense throughout Pretty Hate Machine, and at a concise 10 songs the album offers a much less imposing entrance into the battered sound world of Trent Reznor than either The Downward Spiral or The Fragile. Unfortunately, some of these dirge-like dance tunes sound dated today when compared to those subsequent efforts.
Broken (Nothing/Interscope ‘92) Rating: B+
After the surprising success of Pretty Hate Machine, Trent Reznor ran into record company difficulties, resulting in a long wait before a "proper" follow up. In the meantime, Reznor released this raw, abrasive 33-minute EP, on which his bitter anger and disillusionment about his situation is all too apparent. Reznor's music is still atmospheric and edgy, but Broken is relatively straightforward and metallic compared to other Nine Inch Nails releases. Discovering this after having listened to his other albums, I must say that I miss the subtle sonic details of The Downward Spiral (granted, it took me years before I "got" that album, but now I love it); what you see (hear?) here is what you get. Fortunately, most of what you hear here is good, including "Pinion" and "Help Me I am In Hell," two instrumental interludes, "Wish" (the album’s best known and best song) and "Gave Up," which are all about their hard-hitting beats, "Last," a riffy, metallic ode to instant gratification, and "Happiness In Slavery," which gets surprisingly melodic in between Trent screaming his head off. After a minute and a half of silence during which tracks 7 through 97 are skipped over, two welcome "hidden" bonus tracks appear that are more accessible, including an industrial cover of Adam and the Ants' "(You're So) Physical." However, the bulk of Broken sees Reznor seething with an all-encompassing rage, and as a result the album largely forsakes the pop tendencies that make his other albums "difficult" but digestible. This one is less easily embraceable, though I still respect and admire his hard-hitting vision.
The Downward Spiral (Nothing/Interscope ‘94) Rating: A
Flawed but relentlessly fascinating, this album is much harsher than Pretty Hate Machine, which sounds positively primitive by comparison. On this difficult and ambitious album Trent is lyrically as direct as they come; only Trent could take a chorus of “I want to f**k you like an animal, I want to feel you from the inside” to the upper reaches of the charts. Then again, I don’t listen to Nine Inch Nails for the lyrics (Trent’s ranting and raving about how miserable life is again gets redundant after awhile) or even the songs, though these 14 songs are continually surprising (such as when the cute little piano interlude comes from out of nowhere on “March Of The Pigs”) and creative ("Big Man With A Gun" excepted). No, Nine Inch Nails to me are all about soundscapes. True, all the chilly electronics here leaves me feeling a little bit cold and detached emotionally, but Trent’s endlessly inventive layering of electronic textures with radically reconfigured real life guitars is often flat-out brilliant. Of course, The Downward Spiral can also be quite grating and not a little frustrating, as this is an album of ridiculous extremes. For example, it has hard rocking guitars and ambient instrumentals, and there will be times when things get so quiet that you’ll be wondering if there’s a problem with your stereo, only to hear it erupt in anger just as you’re about to turn up the volume. Needless to say, this isn’t an album for everyone, and it’s still shocking to me that such a brutally uncompromising and adventurous album became so commercially successful. Then again, there’s no denying that Trent has written some catchy tunes here, the big hits of which were the above quoted club classic “Closer” and “Hurt,” a ballad that features an impeccable melody along with Trent’s usual despairing lyrics (years later, the song was completely recast by the incomparable Johnny Cash; its powerful video was especially affecting). These songs, and other highlights such as "Piggy," “March Of The Pigs," "Ruiner," and "A Warm Place," all demonstrate the keen sense of melody that made Trent Reznor a reluctant superstar despite the fact that his music revels in ugly angst. So, despite all its faults, when the “best of the decade” lists started showing up in late 1999, it wasn't too surprising to see this Generation X landmark on most of them. Note: Reznor recorded the album in the same house where Charles Manson’s sicko followers murdered Sharon Tate and others. Pig references abound, as the savvy marketing side of Reznor obviously understood that when it comes to selling records there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The Fragile (Nothing Records) Rating: B+
After a long five-year layoff that included a bout with writers block and many a labored recording session, Trent Reznor emerged with The Fragile, arguably alternative rock’s most eagerly anticipated double album since the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. Opinion was greatly divided as to this album’s merits (for example, Pitchfork gave the album a 2 out of 10, while SPIN magazine voted it their #1 album of the year), and it proved to be a considerable disappointment commercially. Which really shouldn’t be too surprising in retrospect given that the pop landscape at the time was dominated by teenybopper pop and mindless nu-metal, plus the fact that The Fragile was Trent Reznor’s most weighty and ambitious album to date. However, as one of only a handful of artists out there today who actually dares to be great, Trent Reznor certainly has my respect. That said, he remains a grating singer and a whiny, one-dimensional lyricist; the first song alone features lines like “lost my faith in everything” and “too f**ked up to care anymore.” Fortunately, as with all releases bearing the Nine Inch Nails imprint it’s the music that matters. Although there are still plenty of electronics this is a more guitar driven rock album than previous works (with much of the heroics being supplied by the amazing Adrian Belew), as Reznor’s music continues to get more atmospheric and less danceable. Catchy anthems such as “The Day The World Went Away,” “We’re In This Together,” and “Where Is Everybody?” offer thrilling barrages of sonic overload, as producer Alan Moulder’s (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins) fingerprints are all over the album’s huge sound. “The Wretched,” “Just Like You Imagined,” and “The Way Out Is Through” are also enormous, with thickly layered sounds coming at you from all angles, but equally notable are several ambient instrumentals spliced throughout the album (reminiscent of how “A Warm Place” was a surprising highlight on The Downward Spiral), which provide sometimes necessary, sometimes boring breaks in the action, while the haunting “The Great Below” is a big ballad a la “Hurt” only not as good. Yet it is “Starfuckers, Inc.” that’s bound to get the most attention: here Trent hypocritically takes aim at former protégé Marilyn Manson, but the cheesy song could just as easily be about Trent Reznor himself. Ironically, considering Reznor’s perfectionist reputation, taking the good with the bad has always been part of the package in listening to any Nine Inch Nails album. Let’s be honest, this didn’t need to be a double album, as parts of it are quite ponderous. However, though this album’s single-minded insularity and claustrophobic intensity can grow wearying and flat-out boring over the long haul, The Fragile is another at-times fascinating album that's often awesome a little at a time. As with The Downward Spiral (only more so), it will probably be several years before I’ll be able to fully appreciate this dense, self-indulgent album (which asks a lot of its listeners), but that won’t keep me from trying to crack its dark secrets. Just don’t expect me to listen to it from start to finish too often.
And All That Could Have Been: Deluxe Edition (Nothing Records '02) Rating: A- The Fragile may have been considered a commercial disappointment, at least in relative terms compared to The Downward Spiral, but its attendant Fragility 2.0 tour was a smashing success on all fronts. Commemorating that experience is And All That Could Have Been, which neatly sums up an era during which Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were probably the single most important industrial/electronic outfit in alternative rock. And though And All That Could Have Been relies too heavily on The Fragile (6 songs) to work as a completely satisfying career retrospective, it comes pretty darn close. Although Trent Reznor is an obsessive studio perfectionist (recommended starting point: The Downward Spiral, an essential slab of Generation X-styled angst), he also happens to be a spellbinding live performer. After all, he was one of the few standouts from the pathetic cash grab that was Woodstock ’94, and he also highlighted many an early Lollapalooza festival. Granted, the little nuances of his songs can get lost amid the chaos of a live audience, and the sound quality on these songs is much muddier than on their studio counterparts, most of which are admittedly superior. However, the sound quality is still very good for a live recording, and Reznor’s brutally intense fury comes across remarkably well. Pumping up the beats and adding more guitar to his dance oriented material (such as the three stellar tracks from Pretty Hate Machine: "Terrible Lie," "Sin," and "Head Like A Hole"), Reznor and company (Danny Lohner, Jerome Dillon, Charlie Clouser, and Robin Finck) also add enough moody breaks in the action to ensure that this 74 minute experience isn’t completely draining, unlike The Fragile. It is awfully intense, though, and generally in a good way, as no other Nine Inch Nails album can boast a better track listing. As an added enticement, the deluxe edition of And All That Could Have Been includes a second 9-song cd subtitled Still, which contains 3 new instrumentals (“Adrift And At Peace,” “The Persistence Of Loss,” and “Leaving Hope”) that are of a piece with the ambient interludes that appeared throughout The Fragile. “And All That Could Have Been” is another impressive new song, and the disc also includes stripped down versions of familiar songs such as “Something I Can Never Have,” “The Becoming,” and “The Day The World Went Away.” It’s not exactly Nine Inch Nails Unplugged, but Still does contain some of Reznor’s mellowest music to date, and as such it serves as a nice counterpoint to the hard rocking first disc. Taken together, they make a convincing case for Trent Reznor’s art, as he proves equally compelling and capable whether unleashing a blood curdling scream or barely emitting a low-key whisper.