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Friday 23 October 2009

20 Years of Nine Inch Nails (Part 4)

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For just pennies a day, you can save a Trent Reznor from being uncomfortable on MTV. The Save the NIN fund pays for things Trent Reznors need, like extra keyboards to smash, 10-gallon drums of corn starch, and an announcer who can pronounce the name of his band without calling it "Nine Inch SNAILS."

At first I ruled against including media in these posts, because in this day and age anybody who wants to find that stuff can do so. However, I've realized that the act of choosing what's relevant can be a part of the writing process. Now, you can watch all of them, watch some of them, or ignore them completely if you have no use for them.

First, let me get something out of the way that I would have posted in Part 1 if I'd been including video then:


Watch out for the guy in the back

Pre-NIN Trent Reznor, as a part of another band. I love how everyone else looks seriously '80s, and young Trent appears to be dressed for 1997. God bless the '80s; God bless Youtube.

Witness Protection: Speaking Truth to NiNnies

I may need to take an assumed name and hide myself; learn to blend into the shadows, like a ninja. There may be no amount of preparation possible to keep me safe; I am about to write some things about The Fragile that are not entirely complimentary. NIN fans the world over will want my head to hang on their mantelpiece.

"That was the girl who dared criticized The Fragile, we caught up with her eventually. She thought she was so clever, hiding in that big pile of comic books and Tori Amos CDs, but the smell of coffee and Orbit gum gave her away. Now, you can see her head over there, next to my mint copy of the Into the Void single autographed by Trent Reznor, or at least someone who looks a lot like him. It might have been that guy from Lost, actually."

Nineteen Ninety Nine

There are a couple of general guidelines for life, some well-recognized and some less so. There's Benjamin Franklin's famous assertion that the only certainties are death and taxes, the maxim do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and the fact that you should never let Trent pick the singles.

I was ecstatic the day I saw the single The Day the World Went Away at the record store (hey, remember those?), the first single off of The Fragile, NIN's long-awaited fourth album. Finally, a new song from NIN! And a real single, off a real album, not a joke remix EP like The Perfect Drug (no offense to The Perfect Drug!) Yippie-kiyaay! Moments after listening to the song, my excitement morphed into confusion, and finally intense disappointment. Months later, when The Fragile hit the shelves, I bought it dutifully, but without much enthusiasm; my faith in NIN had been shattered. I remember lining up at my local Sam Goody to buy the album, but I was also purchasing the newly released VHS subtitled editions of the Sailor Moon movies, and I was much more excited about the anime at that time. NIN put out a hugely experimental, double CD? That's nice. I used to really like them. I'll listen to it later, Sailor Venus awaits.

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Am I the only one who makes this connection?

It's not that TDTWWA is a bad song; on the contrary, it's grown on me tremendously in the intervening decade. I especially like the acoustic version released as a part of the And All That Could Have Been package several years later. But it's like the Waiting for Godot of rock singles. There's nothing wrong with Waiting for Godot, it's brilliant in fact, but can you imagine taking someone to see Beckett's existentialist lament when they were expecting something more along the lines of Cats? I was expecting a Closer (which I had learned to appreciate by that point), or a Head Like a Hole, and instead I got a song that wasn't single material, but was one of those quiet pieces that you ignore on first listen, but only grow on you much later after you've tired of the catchier tracks. If you need a time machine to properly enjoy your single the day you buy it, there's something terribly, terribly wrong. It was a bait and switch of modest, but significant, proportions.

Reznor later said that he wasn't trying to commit career suicide with The Fragile, but that's pretty close to what happened. Whether it was the intention or not, singles like TDTWWA and later, We're In This Together (which was musically innovative, but possibly the whiniest, most melodramatic song NIN has ever put out) sent a clear message to the throngs of rock fans who rallied around Closer as a party anthem; This is not mainstream music. This is ARTISTIC music, do you hear me? NIN is an art band. Go away, millions of fans.


Introduced by Johnny Depp, no less

NIN performing at the 1999. MTV Video Music Awards. I don't think that this one of their better performances of this song, but I chalk that up to MTV besmirching everything it touches. I want to know what it is Robin did that was so funny it made Trent laugh in the middle of the song.

Oh, and isn't it a shame that we're ten years too early for Kanye West here? I would love to see what happened if he interrupted Nine Inch Nails instead of a willowy folk singer girl. I've seen Trent get violent with that mic stand....

Into the Void of Certainty

The highest compliment I can pay to The Fragile is that, even a decade later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. It's the only NIN album that sounds pretentious to me; I can almost hear Reznor's desperation to out-Spiral himself, prove that the novelty of The Downward Spiral was not a fluke. Tracks like The Great Below, while beautifully arranged and loaded with potential, seem to fall slightly flat, lyrically derivative and lacking the sincerity of NIN's earlier work. Throughout the album, the music is on a level above the lyrics and the vocals; the pretty, playful Into the Void, one of the album's most original compositions, is somewhat let down by Reznor's vocals-- god forbid a song on the album merely be whimsical, there needs to be some self-hatred in there! Some of the darker tracks, like No You Don't and Where is Everybody, are both depressing and forgettable; well, at least you'll forget how depressed you were.

And yet, no matter how many disparaging things I find to say about it, there are plenty of moments when it all comes together. Somewhat Damaged is a fantastic opening track; it is also dark and depressing, but the constantly building intensity is so effective that you can't help but revel in that darkness, which is what the best metal does. The primarily instrumental tracks are of course free from the lyrical malaise of the rest of the album, and they truly shine. Even when I was too disappointed with The Fragile overall to truly appreciate it on its own merits, Just Like You Imagined still struck me as one of the most beautiful pieces of music I'd ever head; I used it as the soundtrack to an animation I made during my senior year of high school. The Way Out is Through is just as evocative as the title would suggest, almost a thesis statement for the album. La Mer, largely a piano piece featuring some French lyrics by a female vocalist, is quietly mesmerizing. On a few songs, primarily the title track and Even Deeper, Reznor gives a quieter, more nuanced vocal performance that would become characteristic of later albums. The flip side of being pretentious is that, if you're aiming for high artistry, sometimes you actually reach it, and the Fragile is a long double album-- there are a lot of mediocre tracks, but there are a lot of winners too, and the winners are forces to be reckoned with. The constant presence of stringed instruments, as opposed to the mostly electronic fare of The Downward Spiral, adds a feeling of warmth to the album that hasn't been equaled on any NIN release before or since; something about it reminds you of a rainforest.


NIN learning how to play JLYI live (it's possible?)

Despite some of the band members screwing up the vocal part a little bit in rehearsal, I like this version of the song a lot.

I guess the easiest way to sum up the album is that it's massively flawed, but also massively beautiful. If it's a failure, it's only so in the sense that you have to wonder what the album would have been if Reznor had been in a better place emotionally when he made it-- The Downward Spiral casts too large a shadow on it. It really only fails in its inability to make good on immense potential. It's a sacred cow for NIN fans because that was the album that separated the men from the boys and the women from the groupies; if you stopped being a huge fan of NIN during The Fragile era, it's because you were a fair-weather fan and never understood what NIN was about musically anyway. I like to think that, even though my NIN fandom waned during that era, it's not because I didn't understand NIN. I think I understood NIN well enough to understand that the album could have been so much more.

Sales Falling Apart

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If I'm ambivalent about The Fragile even now, I've got nothing on the critical response to the album, which over time has proved to be entirely nonsensical. At the time of its release, numerous publications like USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Alternative Press, and Spin Magazine heaped lavish praise upon the album. However, when The Fragile did not sell to expectations, retroactively many music critics apparently decided that not only was it not that good, but despite what they may have said before, they never actually liked it that much in the first place. In the press about 2005's With Teeth, a lot of critics addressed it as a comeback album, as if The Fragile were a disgrace that required coming back from. Now, ten years later and in the light of NIN's recent critical success with albums like Year Zero and The Slip, suddenly everyone remembers that The Fragile was amazingly ahead of its time. Make up your goddamned minds, people.

For a while people liked to refer to The Fragile as a commercial failure, but that's a slight that I haven't heard much these days; I think in light of what's happened to the music industry in recent years, the double-platinum sales of The Fragile are looking better and better. At the time though, the fact that The Fragile sold less than expected and did not produce any radio hits on a par with Closer, or even anything close to that, seemed to signal the end of NIN as a powerful force in rock. Furthermore, the remix album Things Falling Apart was bland, as remix albums go.

And All that Could Have Been


Nine Inch Nails 'La Mer' ((Live from AATCHB))

In 2002, NIN released a live CD and DVD. At the time, the title struck me as disturbingly self-lacerating; just imagine all that could have been, if The Fragile had been better and NIN shows were still completely sold out like they were in the good old days. Actually, the title refers to a bonus track of the same name off of the Still album, which was included as a bonus with the deluxe version of AATCHB. While the live album was pretty much what you would expect, Still was a surprise. Including several new songs (primarily instrumentals) and acoustic remakes of earlier songs, the bonus disc was the star of the package. In theory, there was a six-year gap between The Fragile and 2005's With Teeth, but a lot of NIN fans didn't feel that way; Still felt like an album unto itself.


Nine Inch Nails - Gone, Still.

It also began a trend which would continue throughout the rest of NIN's existence up to the present; grandmas and grandpas saying "I like this music, who is it?" and experiencing extreme confusion when confronted with the answer.

"But this is classical." "Yes." "You're saying it's Nine Inch Nails?" "Yup." "Aren't they the group that sings those terrible dirty songs?" "Yup." "But it's classical piano." "Yeah, they're schizophrenic like that."

Personally I'm not that fond of AATCHB itself-- the lyrics suffer from Fragile-Era melodrama. But the instrumentals are great, and the acoustic version of The Becoming proves that, despite everything that should make it impossible, NIN can make heavy metal with a grand piano. I think it's safe to say that that's a rare skill.


Metal +Grand Piano: Because it was there

What are you people doing? Is this safe? Does Elton John know what you've done with his piano? That poor bastard.

Next on NIN: The Series (or whatever it is that I'm doing), the With Teeth and Year Zero eras. I was going to post the video for The Hand that Feeds to get you all revved up for With Teeth, but there's been a lot of Trent Reznor in this entry, hasn't there? Yeah, I think so too. NIN is about more than just the front man, afterall. So instead, please enjoy this totally Reznor-Free version of The Hand that Feeds.


Rick Astley vs Nine Inch Nails - The Hand That Gives You Up (BRAT Mashup)

God, I love the internet.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

20 Years of Nine Inch Nails (Part 3)

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Little-known fact: The video for The Perfect Drug was created for the sole purpose of giving bloggers cool screenshots to work with. True story.

As luck would have it, my NIN fandom was at its height during the period where NIN could not be bothered to release a damn thing; maybe it was one of those absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder sorts of deals.

There was a five-year gap between the release of The Downward Spiral in 1994 and The Fragile in 1999 (technically, Further Down the Spiral was released in 1995, however that contained remixes of TDS tracks done by other artists than NIN, meaning that calling it a NIN album is a bit of a reach.) That's a long wait between albums, especially in an industry where the average shelf life of a band is only a few years to begin with.

At the time, Trent Reznor was distracted by outside projects; scoring the David Lynch film Lost Highway being one, and an ill-fated collaboration with Tool frontman Maynard James Keener another. While Reznor received accolades for his work on Lynch's film, the Reznor-MJK project, tentatively titled Tapeworm, is credited with the creation of only one commercially-released track. The idea of a NIN/Tool crossover however has proved so appealing to so many fans that Reznor claims that he has now spent more time answering questions about Tapeworm after the fact than he and Maynard ever spent working on it. For hard rock fans, it seems Tapeworm will forever be 'the one that got away', a kind of holy relic of 90's rock.

If it was a sparse time for NIN, it was also a confusing one. The one new song NIN released during the era, The Perfect Drug, was credited to NIN; however, other short instrumentals on the Lost Highway album were credited to Trent Reznor individually. Was Trent branching out as a solo artist, at least in the realm of film? Was NIN becoming a truly collaborative act, necessitating the distinction between the band and Reznor himself? Would any of this matter whatsoever unless any of the above parties got down to business and recorded the next stupid album already?

Reznor has admitted in recent years that the gap between albums was largely due to fear; after the tremendous critical and commercial success of The Downward Spiral, he was afraid that he was destined to be called a has-been pretty much regardless of what he did next. Unfortunately, though his procrastination may not have helped matters any, his fears proved to be well-founded: it took an album or two for people to accept that NIN would not, could not, make the The Downward Spiral again (not on a boat, not on a train, not with a pig, not in a wig, not in New Orleans, not with a walrus. Sorry.) Nevertheless, in 1997 we did get to hear The Perfect Drug-- like an oasis in a desert with no NIN, which come to think of it would be like most deserts, but c'est la vie.

The Perfect Video

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If the Closer video was a worthy addition to the song, the The Perfect Drug video took the "Music video that actually has a legitimate artistic reason to exist" concept to a higher level: the video is better than the song. In one sense, the video justifies the song.

It might seem obnoxiously pseudo-intellectual to presume that a song needs justification to exist, and I suppose it is, but The Perfect Drug presents a bit of a strange case. Ostensibly written for The Lost Highway soundtrack, only one tiny part of the song actually features in the movie- a tiny part with no vocals, incidentally. While The Perfect Drug was technically a single, the actual song did not appear on the commercially released EP- only a collection of remixes, something that annoyed me tremendously at the time (maybe it's just me, but when I buy CD single, I'd kind of like the actual song to be on it.) While the song has many interesting features and was nominated for the Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy Award in 1997 (one of NIN's twelve Grammy Nominations, two of which were wins), it usually doesn't make appearances on fans' "Top 3 NIN Songs" lists. It's solid, impressively experimental, and catchy, but lyrically a bit derivative of NIN's previous material.

Where Mark Romanek got the idea to turn TPD into a gothic, Edward Gorey-inspired visual feast, I'll never know. But at some point, the video ceases to be a Nine Inch Nails product and becomes Romanek's Opus. He somehow coached a believable performance of a distinct character out of Trent Reznor, who had never played anyone but himself in videos (albeit with some showmanship.) In TPD, instead of Reznor we have a haunted nobleman in a dark Victorian estate morning the loss of either a woman, a child, or both-- it's hard to tell. More importantly, the video has the nerve to reach for grandeur and actually captures it.

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TR_TPD.jpg Goatees: Should only be acceptable in this video, and POSSIBLY on Hugh Jackman. That is all.

At first glance, it looks more like a trailer for a feature film than a music video-- it's so fully realized that you believe there must be more there, more than this few minutes of film accompanying this strange song, equally soothing and cacophonous. Some people have expressed the wish that this video be expanded upon and made into a feature film; I think that would be redundant. It is a film; Romanek just did away with the need for things like "dialogue" and "running time."

Next time, I get into the second half of NIN's discography with The Fragile, Things Falling Apart, and And All That Could Have Been. You realize that by the time I get to Ghosts, I'll have probably have such commentary-exhaustion that the entry will read "NIN made album with no wurds, wuz good!", but we'll see.

Thursday 8 October 2009

20 Years of Nine Inch Nails (Part 2)

closerlittlegirl.jpg From Closer.

Before delving into The Downward Spiral, there is one critically important thing concerning Broken that I forgot to mention last time (shame on me). Since the two bonus songs, Physical and Suck were so different in tone from the rest of the album, the CD version pushed those songs all the way back to tracks 98 and 99, meaning listeners had to skip through 90 blank tracks to get to them. The cassette version of Broken (which was the version I owned until the early '00's) dealt with this problem in a much more elegant way; all you had to do was flip the tape over. This means that NIN managed to produce an album where the cassette version was superior to the compact disc, a nigh-impossible feat.

I told you they were good.

The Downward Spiral

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If you weren't paying much attention to rock in the '90s, a lot of it was like this.

Hole- Courtney Love's band- opened for NIN in the mid-90's, when NIN was touring in support of The Downward Spiral. Love later complained profusely about the debauchery she witnessed on that tour. General rule of thumb: When Courtney Love says that you should be conducting yourself with more decorum and restraint, maybe it's time to re-evaluate your lifestyle.

I can think of no better example of life imitating art than the whole TDS era of NIN. The initial plan for TDS was a kind of thought-experiment on Reznor's part; exaggerate his current problems to the nth degree, and write an album from the perspective of the character he believed he could become in that situation. It was an attempt to deal with the darkest aspects of human nature through art, without having to experience them directly. Fortunately for NIN's value to posterity, but unfortunately for Reznor personally, the narrator's descent into madness and finally self-destruction rang so true for the world at large that most people assumed that the album was (at least mostly) auto-biographical. While the album's themes of substance abuse and megalomania had not been an accurate reflection of his life up to that point, the assumption of millions that he was the person he had written about, added to the excesses of stardom and constant touring, made it hard to tell the difference.

If Reznor acted like a crazy rock star for a good long while (and he admits it), at least he created a record of proportional insanity. I hate it when rock stars think they can get away with the fun stuff and skip the crucial "art" and "suffering" stages. That's just rude.

Closer to Meaning

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Okay, you want to know what The Downward Spiral REALLY means? The monkey died for our sins. Clearly.

The phenomenon that grew out of the saturation of the song Closer was unique. Out of context, the song sounds like a frat party anthem; the notoriously dirty chorus tends to grab most of the attention. In the larger context of The Downward Spiral, it's part of an incredibly desperate cry for help that eventually terminates with the narrator committing suicide during the title track. While the chorus can be interpreted as a celebration of nihilism, it's hard to find a "cool" interpretation for lines like "You can have my absence of faith" and "Help me get away from myself!" While most people were blown away by the fact that a commercial single had the word "fuck" in the chorus, the defining phrase of Closer is "Help Me"; it appears four times more often.

Of course, radio stations and MTV were not going to play the song straight out, so the radio edit notoriously contained a pregnant pause where the f-word should be. That edited version, which achieved such ubiquity in the mid-90s that it approached total media saturation, had the effect of making the song sound even more shocking than it actually was. With the word so obviously edited out, it tended to make you scream the word in your head involuntarily. The censorship had the odd effect of appearing to be holding back the brutal nature of the song, which only added to it's allure.

As a kid, I hated Closer; I was too young for TDS at the time, and all I could get out of the song was "Look how dirty this is, isn't this shocking!", and I was a precocious kid who resented that sort of thing. It was only many years later that I came to appreciate it. Lyrically, it's brilliant despite the chorus; the narrator is doing anything he can to stop himself from thinking, a plan where sex is just the latest in a long string of distractions. But he can't decide whether this is a good idea or not. Does abandoning reason and existing on a purely animal level really bring him "Closer to God?" Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? If people are at their most divine when they use their reason, why does running away from it feel like the right thing to do? Earlier in the album, within the song Heresy, Reznor quotes Nietzsche: "God is Dead." Which is really unfortunate, because God tends to be the one you want to answer this sort of thing.

At the end of the day, what is Closer? A celebration of casual sex, or a thinly veiled plea for the grace to believe in God again? Choose your poison.

Closer to Video

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Whatever you're doing, you can be sure he disapproves.

For a brief period, the music video for Closer was the only music video admitted to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. I've heard that they recently added the video for Madonna's Bedtime Stories, also directed by Mark Romanek, which somewhat ruins the effect. Still, it's impressive.

Music videos, as a format, are very strange. Music is music: it doesn't NEED visuals. The institution of the music video has led to a profusion of songs that aren't much on their own, but make for good videos where a bunch of girls in skimpy costumes and body glitter can do some sort of gyrating rain-dance. Musicians without much talent for actual music have been able to ride the video format to fame, and for musicians who are more interested in the songwriting process, the necessity to make videos for every popular song is at best a distraction, and at worst a giant, expensive albatross hung around the neck. The format has also had the effect of screening out of the industry anyone who isn't physically attractive, which is backwards in a medium that should be dependent on how someone sounds, not how they look.

And then there's Romanek's Closer-ballsy, blasphemous, strange, slightly self-parodying, and above all, mesmerizing. In a "sexy" song, one would expect the usual procession of hot chicks parading around the lead singer like he's the best thing since cake; instead we get lizards, bugs, monkey crucifixion, a disembodied beating heart, and a vulnerable incarnation of Trent Reznor who looks like he must have needed to get a permission slip signed in order to appear in the video. While there is "adult content" in the video, as they say, the most adult aspects of it are those that the MTV version didn't have to censor; the little girl who appears throughout (whom we would like to believe is pre-sexual, but isn't), the metronome, the room full of incredulous old men in three-piece suits judging the proceedings, and so on. There's always been plenty of sexuality on display on MTV, but most of the time videos glamorize it; this is, if not the opposite, something different. There's no glamour here, just the inevitability of biology- like lizards laying eggs.

If the song is deceptive in that it sounds like it's about sex but is really about something else at its core, the video is about how most things tend to come back to sex on some level whether we like it or not.

The Bottom of the Spiral

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From Hurt.

I ended up writing far more about Closer than I originally intended, as opposed to the album as a whole. It's such a tempting subject though, and that's symptomatic of the fact that NIN is, on one level, a one-hit wonder. To many fans, NIN is Closer; they have no use for anything else. It dominates the conversation. If I had to pick one other feature of TDS that should warrant special attention (and for the purpose of brevity, let's pretend that I do), it's the fact that the narrator kills himself on the penultimate track, not the final one.

That's right; the narrator kills himself and the album isn't over yet.

Hurt, the final song, is in a different style than the rest of the album. While TDS is sonically a dense, multi-multi layered production, Hurt is mostly just Reznor and a keyboard. In an album that tends to turn traditional song structure upside down violently, the chorus of "What have I become, my sweetest friend" is heartfelt and clean, both lyrically and sonically. I think Hurt was a preview of what some of Reznor's work would sound like a decade later-- Right Where It Belongs could very nearly be passed off as a Peter Paul & Mary song, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Many people interpret Hurt as a song sung from the point of view of Reznor directly, as opposed to the exaggerated narrator of TDS. By this point, that megalomaniac has blown his head off and isn't around to get in the way. There may be no better end to an album than the way Hurt caps off TDS; after a loud, violent, theatrical self destruction, when the smoke has cleared, Reznor gets to say "Look, this concept album was an interesting experiment and all, but this is really me here. Please listen to me and don't repeat my mistakes." In a way, Hurt is darker than all of TDS: We know that it's only the narrator who died and not the man, but in the crushing sincerity of the album's post-mortem, we can't help but feel that he's not far behind his creation. The sense of loss is overpowering; Despite knowing that Trent Reznor is alive and well, I can't hear this song without a tinge of fear that the singer must already be dead.

Next time, some lighter fare with The Perfect Drug, and the rest of that whole weird period where no one was sure if NIN was going to put out another album or not.

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Absinthe: When you're bored with all of the other drugs.

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