20 Years of Nine Inch Nails (Part 1)
By Karen on Thursday 17 September 2009, 22:49 - Permalink
Probably not a typical NIN jam session.
Someone, I can't remember who, casually mentioned to me a couple of months ago that Nine Inch Nails were performing at Jones Beach, and I said "hmm, that's nice." Ideally I would have gone, but I'm a starving-artist type who can't afford to buy a whole lot of concert tickets, Plus I saw NIN at Madison Square Garden a couple of years ago, and that was a fantastic show. I just couldn't justify splurging on a concert for a band I'd already seen, for a concert that probably wouldn't be as good as the previous one.
I just found out that the name of that tour was Wave Goodbye, and it was the last NIN tour. I really wish that the person I can't remember from a couple of months ago had told me that. Shame on you, unmemorable person: Maybe I forgot you for a reason.
Now I could probably write an entire book just about NIN (and by the time this blog has been around for a while, I might have essentially done so), but I'm going to try to curb my verbosity enough to write a proper retrospective and cover a little bit of everything.
Nine Inch Nails: A Retrospective
I first became aware of Nine Inch Nails at the age of twelve; this means that I have been a fan of NIN for more than half of my life. If my objectivity concerning the band is questionable, it's because we grew up together. Closer on the radio scared me like the bully down the street, Just Like You Imagined soothed my jagged teenaged nerves, and now, Discipline reminds me that no matter how far I've come in terms of maturity, or perhaps because of it, I need support so I can go further. And all of Broken was like an annoying little brother, almost as annoying as my actual little brother, which is saying something. And don't even get me started on "Reptile"; I may have first discovered the concept of sex with Paula Abdul's State of Attraction, but it wasn't until NIN that I actually gave a damn.
Among his achievements, Trent Reznor can claim several paradoxical feats- like somehow managing to simultaneously be a one-hit wonder and one of the most inimitable artists in the history of rock. Or being involved in the creation of landmark music videos that legitimized the medium as an art form, amidst the backdrop of music videos completely destroying the artistic integrity of the music industry. But perhaps the most important thing that separates NIN from other acts can be found in a simple phrase in the credits section of Pretty Hate Machine: "Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor."
He's wasn't dead, you idiots.
Technically, NIN should be referred to as 'he', since from a legal perspective, the name only refers to one person. However, everybody- and I do mean everybody- refers to NIN as 'they', as in "They're playing at Madison Square Garden tonight." Nobody who has ever seen NIN in concert would think otherwise. Many bands fight or even break up over 'creative differences'; with NIN this would be impossible by definition, since anyone who isn't cool with Reznor having the final say doesn't join NIN in the first place. And yet, it doesn't feel like a solo act with a couple of work-for-hire flunkies- musicians like Charlie Clouser, Robert Patrick and Alessandro Cortini have played a tremendous role in NIN, along with a good dozen more artists, all of whom are charismatic, stylistically distinct, and valued by the fans. With Reznor's leadership acknowledged from the outset, NIN benefits from the presence of one cohesive creative vision instead of a bunch of compromises; they can skip most of the petty power struggles that plague more 'democratic' acts. And yet somehow, they maintain the allure, the camaraderie, the sense of adventure, of a rock band. Characteristically, what was in some respects a selfish move by Reznor- demanding total creative control- in the long run saved everyone a lot of trouble.
There's been so many people in the line-up these past few years that I honestly have no idea who the guy on the right is-- they should start wearing name tags.
Another idiosyncrasy of NIN is the huge gap between the actual content of NIN records, and the public perception of that content. For a long time NIN was represented in pop culture as the preeminent shock-rock band; big brother-band to Marilyn Manson, awash with expletives, anathema to everything subtle, classy and refined. But as early as Broken, NIN featured piano solos among it's rock anthems, a trend that would eventually culminate in albums featuring many fully instrumental compositions, and even forays into the realm of classical. Rock critics had to pull out the big words to describe NIN records; Reznor, usually soft-spoken when interviewed, used even bigger words. Was this a crazy, drugged-out metal band, or a calculated, intellectual, progressive musical experiment?
Furthermore, why 'Nine Inch Nails'? People speculated that the title was a reference to the long nails that are used in the construction of coffins; others, perhaps optimistically, thought it referred to genitalia. The answer?
"It looks good in print", said Reznor.
Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
I'm seriously hoping that this is actually a picture of early NIN, because for all I can tell from this one it could be New Kids On the Block.
In the mid-90's, Closer was nigh-omnipresent on the radio, but I didn't like it; It scared me. I thought explicit songs like that shouldn't be on the radio where pure, innocent little lambs like me could hear it (I think I was a snotty kid, now that I think about it.) It was hearing a random airing of Head Like a Hole that made me a fan.
PHM sounds dated; the 80's appear to the be the decade where everything now appears even more dated than dated things usually do. Dated in high-def, if you will. And Reznor's earnestness can sometimes backfire, resulting in whiny vocals that just cross the line into being slightly annoying. However, not only does the album have intermittently fantastic vocals-- The perfect annunciation of the lyrics and emotional delivery of Head Like A Hole makes the song sound more like it was written for the stage( you can clearly hear EVERY word he's saying, a breath of fresh air in the realm of rock.) While I've always found Reznor's singing to be inconsistent, when he's good he's very good, and there are plenty of examples of that here.
Even if some songs aren't performed as well as they could have been, PHM makes up for it with consistently good songwriting. Nearly every song on the LP is catchy and singable, and while the lyrics are not particularly deep, they are always memorable. Down in it is like nothing else that had come out at the time, Sin could be another stage production number (what a musical that would be), and The Only Time is so guileless and playfully raunchy that you almost have to smile. Again, for the most part PHM isn't a lyrical showstopper, but lines like "And the Devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car!" have a unique, perverse charm to them. What kind of car does the devil drive, anyway? Is going into the backseat with the devil a good thing?
Alas, 20 years later some mysteries still remain.
At one point in Back To the Future, the Doc says: "You're not thinking four-dimensionally, Marty!" If you can't hear what's so great about Broken, you're not thinking four-dimensionally, Marty(and your taste in music is questionable.) Broken always sounds better in the future.
Reznor described Broken as an intentionally abrasive record, full of anger. A world of legal trouble with NIN's first label, TVT records, left him even more inclined to lament the influence of the great "They" who controlled the purse strings than usual. While at first the record sounds like a series of accidents at an industrial park (with about as much musicality), I find that it sounds better to me with every passing year. There is beauty buried deeply on the lower layers, but it isn't delivered to you on a silver platter. You have to actually acclimate yourself to listening to the record, the polar opposite of pop music's "hear it once and it's in your head" sensibility. When I first got it fifteen years ago, I liked one or two little parts of it but found the whole thing virtually unlistenable. Now, it's one of my favorite albums of all time. Listen to it long enough, and all you can hear is the beauty.
Woodstock '94: There are worse things than Swine Flu
NIN's performance of Happiness in Slavery in 1994 is still considered a high water mark of rock performance, at least for the kind of rock where moshing is not only permissible, but mandatory, and where everyone is far too stoned to remember what "high-water mark" means. Frustrated by the constant rain at Woodstock '94, the band took a dive in a giant mud puddle before the performance, and broke their instruments into pieces as punishment for being full of water and malfunctioning. Covered in mud, fifteen times louder than Nirvana, snarling with rage and consumed with the desire to murder some keyboards, NIN put on a show like no other. I wonder how many of the ecstatic fans in the audience knew that the song was actually mocking them, ever so slightly. My guess is zero.
The true brilliance of Broken, at least to me, is that it's not the primal scream it sounds like; there's more to it. On the umpteenth listen, you start to notice lines like these:
Slave screams, he's gonna cause the system to fall
But he's glad to be chained to that wall
Happiness in Slavery is a song about people unwillingly being pushed through the broken machine of social conformity-- or so it seems. But it's also about people who lament the machine, but are free from the responsibility to actually do anything about it by virtue of their powerlessness. People who bitch about "The System", while sitting around in their parents' basement waiting for a new CD to come out. Kind of like a lot of NIN fans. Kind of like Trent Reznor. It's unusual to have the presence of mind during your primal scream to implicate yourself.
Next Time: The Downward Spiral
No, I'm not a drug addict-- I just play one on TV in order to help create a persona which I can then use as a launch pad for my philosophy and social commentary. Why do you ask?