nine inch nails

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The Becoming: one person’s introduction to Nine Inch Nails

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It took me ten years to become a Nine Inch Nails fan. Actually. Between my Catholic upbringing, Trent Reznor’s association with then-protégée / your parents’ worst nightmare Marilyn Manson, and lack of a cool, older sibling in the ’90s, any interaction I had with Reznor’s industrial rock outfit came by chance. As those incidental doses grew more frequent, so did my fascination with his immersive landscapes of sound. Four moments stand out to me the most.

2002 - NIN’s tragic epic “Hurt” is reimagined by Johnny Cash on what would become his final album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. “When I heard that song,” Cash remarks before his death, “I thought, ‘That sounds like something I could have written in the ’60s. There’s more heart, soul and pain in that song than any I’ve heard in a long time. I love it.” I am 11 and captivated by his cover at first listen. It’s strange that a song about such deep pain can be so beautiful.

2007 - “Closer” places second to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” on AOL’s “69 Sexiest Songs Ever Recorded.” I am 15. I click through because I’m curious and these are the kind of dumb, provocative posts you click through when you’re 15. The throbbing drum sample, Trent Reznor’s cries, and those abrasive “I wanna fuck yous” scare me and turn me on all at once. I replay the unexpected delicate piano outro several times. The other songs on the list don’t offer as great of a visceral reaction.

2009 - Reznor places NIN on a hiatus that only broke this year. “Don’t be sad. I’ll keep going,” he tells a shocked audience at Bonnaroo. “But I think I’m going to lose my mind if I keep doing this, and I have to stop.” That fall, a copy of The Downward Spiral is passed around at least one dorm room in Canada.  I am 17, and college is about trying new things anyways, right? So that’s where “Hurt” and “Closer” come from. The record strikes me as cold and metallic. Unpleasant. Initially, I skip every song if it intercepts my shuffle setting. Eventually, I warm up to the pulsing beats and raw, emotional delivery on tracks like "Heresy" and "Reptile."

2012 - I am 20. I have now loved and lost, been hurt and seen people I care about hurt themselves. Perhaps to fill the void, I fall hard for the legendary music chameleon that is David Bowie and start taking in everything the man has ever produced like air. That path eventually leads me to his thrilling 1997 collaboration with NIN, "I’m Afraid of Americans." Instead of just hearing noise from Trent Reznor, I hear contagious energy and creative beat work. I’m finally sold, and go on to check out NIN’s first album on YouTube. And the next. And the next. And the next …

With greater experience and understanding, I realized that the point of Nine Inch Nails isn’t about unpleasantly dwelling in anger and sadness. Collectively, Nine Inch Nails is a story of survival. The music is less about Trent Reznor soundtracking violent urges to mindless distortion, and more about exorcising his demons in diary entries that became fully-fleshed out songs written with the tact of a true composer. Whether it’s his early electronic-based work, concept albums, or piano interludes, Reznor’s music is a therapeutic reminder of how far we’ve all come in the face of adversity.

This week, I’m hoping to save you the ten years’ time it took me to reach that conclusion, and to challenge your impression of what a Nine Inch Nails song can be. Whether you’re a follower of One Week One Band or Trent Reznor’s work already, I encourage you to come along. We’re in this together now.

Nine Inch Nails - The Day The World Went Away (Quiet)

Whether you’ve found Nine Inch Nails too jarring at the surface for your taste in music, or you’re keen to explore a different side of Trent Reznor’s work, I can’t recommend his series of (Quiet) tracks enough. Another favorite band of mine, Metric, refers to this exercise of stripping down a song as the “campfire test”: a song should be able to hold its own in a minimal environment if it was truly strong enough to begin with. “The Day The World Went Away (Quiet)” not only aces this test, but also stands as one of NIN’s greatest tracks to date. Its ambient background hum, tender strings and soft piano never fail to calm.

The song’s personal significance (at least in rumour) to Reznor is part of what makes it so moving. While most families have one set of parents, Reznor really got to grow up with two. After his young parents divorced when he was 6,  Reznor went on to live with his late grandparents, Bill and Clara Clark, while his mother took care of his younger sister. They nurtured Reznor’s love of music with piano lessons, and Bill cameoed in several profiles of Reznor as an avid NIN concert attendee with nothing but glowing praise of his grandson’s talents.

While his grandfather lived to see NIN’s then-final tour in 2009, Clara sadly passed away during the making of The Fragile, Reznor’s double album follow-up to The Downward Spiral in 1999. The loss of a maternal figure took a toll on Reznor’s mental health, already shaken by the death of his beloved dog and tour mate Maise, and exasperated his substance abuse at the time. While writing The Fragile wasn’t the complete cure, the album became a great part of the healing process.

"The Day The World Went Away," The Fragile's second track, appears to be influenced by his grandmother's death. Beyond its title that suggests the emotional void created by the loss of a loved one, the opening lyrics, “I'd listen to the words he'd say / But in his voice I heard decay / The plastic face forced to portray / All the insides left cold and gray,” evoke the image of a casket in a funeral setting. Your loved one is there, but it's not really them anymore, is it? Just their body prepared to meet the earth. It's not as surprising then that the above video for such a personal song was never commercially released at Reznor’s request.

While the lyrics sting with sadness, the instrumentation around them - particularly in the (Quiet) version - suggests something more. After the brief lyrics conclude, the deep plucking of strings is slowly overcome by uplifting electronic swells and the kind of delicate sighs that would escape your mouth over unrequited affection. In that lies the most important takeaway from the song - the beauty of everlasting love in spite of separation.

Track

Terrible Lie

Nine Inch Nails - Terrible Lie

Trust is a double-edged sword. When gained, it solidifies the strength of our relationships, be it with friends, lovers, or faith. When lost, it shatters our sense of security and sense of self. Betrayal is a reoccurring theme throughout Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989), but on no track does it hit harder than “Terrible Lie.”

The intro mimics the unnerving sounds of cold machinery before leaving you with the emptiness of heavy drum samples and Trent Reznor’s sneers of disillusionment with organized religion. In between heavily distorted, taunt-like screams of “HEY GOD!”, Reznor bitterly spits out thoughts of confusion and rage about faith. “Seems like salvation comes only in our dreams / Can this world really be as sad as it seems?” In other words, if someone is watching over this earth from a place of peace, why do they sit back and allow war? Reznor’s screams in the titular chorus provide his own answer. Layers of surging synthesizers join in, replicating that panging sensation in your head upon the shock of being lied to with eerie accuracy.

"Terrible Lie" also marks the beginning of a pattern in Reznor’s songwriting where the outset of brute rage is permeated by whispers of need. Whether you believe in the promises of faith or not, you have to admit that concepts like repentance and salvation are comforting ideas. “‘Be a good boy and you’ll go to heaven’; If it works for you, fine, but it doesn’t work for me," Reznor told Alternative Press in 1990. “That pisses me off because I kind of wish it did.”

Reznor confronts this more directly in the breakdown, taking the line “Don’t turn away from me / I need someone to hold on to” from a whisper to a scream. Just as his most vulnerable thoughts are revealed, the floodgates of emotion are violently cut off with my favorite effect on the album: a distorted pinging sound that makes the song’s rage all the more icy. Reznor created it by playing a woodblock through a distortion pedal, tuning down the sound down by a few octaves, the cutting off the start to give the sample a more jarring effect.

While all NIN songs are heard best through headphones, putting them on for the end of “Terrible Lie” allows you to hear a definitive example of the duality that underscores many of Reznor’s lyrics. In one ear, he bitterly whispers “I give you everything”, in the other, he self-consciously whimpers “I need someone to hold onto.” See if you can guess which voice has the last say by the end. Once you hear it, you’ll realize the greatest reason for Reznor’s pain.

Nine Inch Nails - Something I Can Never Have

As much as NIN’s debut Pretty Hate Machine was influenced by synths and heavy metal, it also contains the soft piano ballad “Something I Can Never Have.” It’s a tragic yet poignant song about lost love that still holds power over Trent Reznor to the point of emotionally effecting live performances. This version comes from the studio sessions of Still (2002), a fantastic album with original piano instrumentals and stripped-down takes on several NIN songs. The song contains as much hurt as it does beautiful piano work, a powerful reminder of the strange way that love can take our lows lower and highs higher.

Nine Inch Nails - Closer

Saying that “Closer” is a song about sex is like calling David Bowie a guitar player. While the aspect is certainly there, it’s the least crucial part to its genius. There’s no mistaking that the song’s provocative surface has driven its popularity (when else do you have the excuse to say “I wanna fuck you like an animal” in public?), and it was certainly the first Nine Inch Nails song I sought out to listen to in its entirety. But on the topic of how he’d like to be remembered, Trent Reznor only half-jokingly told CBC Radio that he’d rather not go down as “the lucky guy that had a silly single with a bad word in it 20 years ago.”

Following the industrial metal EP Broken (1992), Reznor sought out to create an album that expanded NIN’s musical pallet beyond its aggressive synth and electric guitar-driven catalogue at the time. Reznor envisioned the project that became The Downward Spiral (1994) as a concept album about one man’s decent from sanity to suicide. Over the course of 14 songs, the protagonist becomes addicted to drugs, loses his lover, his faith, and then himself to excess and depression.

In this continuity, “Closer” is really about the protagonist’s failed attempt to run away from his isolation with sex. Anonymous, sadomasochistic sex. While the opening drumbeat sampled from Iggy Pop’s "Nightclubbing" sets the boudoir mood, the growing layers of guitars and synthesizers throughout the song build not to a point of pleasure, but of pain as the protagonist is consumed by his insecurities. Yes, he wants to fuck you like an animal, but only because the bedroom is the last place where he can feel in control of his life: “Help me tear down my reason / Help me it’s your sex I can smell / Help me you make me perfect / Help me become somebody else.”

The music video, a compelling work of art on its own, furthers the song’s connection to The Downward Spiral's overarching themes. Director Mark Romanek, who went on to direct the video for Johnny Cash's cover of “Hurt,” includes images of a monkey on a cross (the protagonist has no respect for religion), a decaying pig's head (spinning literally while the protagonist's spins figuratively), and a nude, anonymous woman (much like the protagonist's conquests) among other unnerving shots. Romanek purposely had “Closer” shot with hand-cranked cameras and burned certain portions of the film in post-production to give it an older look that also strengthens the imagery of decay, be it of the body in death or of the mind in mental collapse.

Just when the ending of “Closer” seems to be going out of control with endless electronic loops, the madness is cut off by a delicate piano outro. The motif appears throughout The Downward Spiral in various instruments and keys. My best guess of its meaning is that the interlude represents the protagonist’s sense of hope. Earlier in the album, songs like “Piggy” and “Closer” feature the motif prominently as a vibrant piano part. Hope is briefly regained. By the chorus of “Heresy,” the motif becomes buried in distortion. Hope is lost. By its final appearance, the motif can barely be heard until all hope is eclipsed by screams.

Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie - Hurt (Live)

If you thought that “Hurt” couldn’t get any more incredible than it is, watching David Bowie share the stage with Trent Reznor in this moving duet will make you forget that any other artists exist. As mutual admirers of each other’s musical capability, Bowie invited Reznor to tour with him as he promoted his album Outside in 1995. While Bowie was very aware that The Downward Spiral made NIN far more popular than his own output at the time, Reznor refused to let his idol open for him.

Instead, Reznor would be joined by Bowie for the final songs of each NIN set on the Dissonance Tour so one act bled into the other. It’s disappointing but understandable that critics were confused by the pairing of an underground icon and mainstream legend at the time. Artistically, it was a match made in heaven. Reznor has stated over and over that his own willingness to experiment with electronics and song structures came from Bowie and his masterpiece Low (1977) in particular. Meanwhile, Bowie was keen to explore industrial music at that point in the ’90s, and who better to compare notes with?

Reznor recently revealed in MOJO magazine that he owes an even larger debt to Bowie“I met Bowie at not a great time in my life. He was sober and I wasn’t. He took me under his wing as a kind of mentor and offered me some words of wisdom that haunted me and ended up helping me.” That bit of background makes watching the two duet on “Hurt” all the more inspiring. The performance becomes less about sharing regrets about their involvement with excess and more about a survivor helping someone else find their way to recovery.