From the ages of about 13 to 16, I had a Nine Inch Nails phase. This isn’t an uncommon thing among young people interested in music
Many of my friends and certain members of my family went through a similar stage in the development of their music taste. And unlike other peoples’ angsty teenage favorites, my love of NIN certainly not something I regret or conceal: just the other day I re-listened to Pretty Hate Machine, their debut album, on a road trip with friends. No, I think Nine Inch Nails is probably a really great band even if the music is a bit overdramatic—Trent Reznor, the genius behind it all, is a master of composition, production, and sound design, and his contribution to Industrial Rock has gone unmatched by any of the many NIN-clones (see Filter, God Lives Underwater, etc.) that followed in his footsteps. But in light of their most recent EP, Not the Actual Events, and the announcement of two other companion EPs to be released in 2017, I’ve been thinking that we no longer need Nine Inch Nails, at least in its current incarnation.
NIN’s glorious career has produced, in my opinion, at least four essential works. In 1992, the spectacularly angry Broken EP brought an unparalleled, devastating energy to Industrial Rock. I hear NIN’s sophomore album The Downward Spiral as a near-perfect confrontation of drug addiction and a criticism of masculinity. The Fragile’s production pushed NIN to the cutting edge by fusing drum ‘n’ bass with Hip Hop with Shoegaze (thanks in no small part to some help from Alan Moulder and Dr. Dre). And nearly a decade later Reznor teamed up with Atticus Ross to produce Year Zero—an album that proved the band could still make brilliant, innovative, pertinent work—it’s a post-industrial album for the digital age with a lyrical shift of focus from the personal to the political. I think those are the highlights, but the other NIN albums are no joke: Pretty Hate Machine still packs a punch even if it sounds dated; With Teeth has many impressive moments; Ghost I-IV is of the same caliber as much of Reznor and Ross’s excellent work on film scores; The Slip works well as an experiment in more conventional hard rock.
After touring for The Slip, NIN went on their second hiatus—Reznor and Ross started composing films scores (which we’ll discuss later) and didn’t come back to the project until 2013 with the release of Hesitation Marks. That was the turning point. Hesitation Marks was a comeback album, and like most comeback albums, it tried to reorient the Nine Inch Nails project by going back to its roots. There are many (probably deliberate) similarities between it and The Downward Spiral: they’re both 14 tracks-long; there’s a funky centerpiece song as the fifth track (“Closer” and “All Time Low”); Russell Mills made the artwork with similar chemical processes. That said Hesitation Marks doesn’t come close to reproducing the quality of the former album, and Hesitation Marks’ references to NIN’s past glory only serve to remind the listener of how great they used to be. To give a specific example: one thing conspicuously missing from all of NIN’s post-The Fragile output is the use of sampling—a vital element to creating the feeling of dereliction and decay. Just listen to the wailing sample 20 seconds into “The Becoming”. There’s no synth or effect on Hesitation Marks that comes close to that kind of pure obliteration—even though much of the album concerns the same subject matter! Hesitation Marks significantly diverges from The Downward Spiral only a few times: on the forays into Blues on “Find My Way” and “While I’m Still Here”—both of which fall flat—and Reznor’s attempt to write a happy song on “Everything,” which is a good song, but sounds out of place in the middle of the album.
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh; Hesitation Marks received good reviews from critics, made a few best-album lists, and I liked it when it came out (though I still joke that the best NIN album of 2013 was Baths’ Obsidian). But undoubtedly, the album disappointed many hardcore fans by being the first NIN album that failed to effectively expand upon their sound, and still sounds like a collection previously explored ideas and failed experiments.
So now, four years later, Reznor and Ross have begun to release a trilogy of EPs—Not the Actual Events came out in late 2016, and the second, Add Violence (you’re kidding me, right?), is due for release on July 21st. I really enjoyed Not the Actual Events, and I think it went underrated by critics and fans alike—though I don’t disagree with our initial review. Reznor’s lyrics are predictable, but he’s writing again about political / social apocalypse—not personal. Ever since Year Zero, I’ve felt that that was the right lyrical direction for NIN to move in if they want to age gracefully. Sonically, NtAE is the hardest music Reznor has released since the Broken EP—even moving into No Wave territory reminiscent of early-Swans. The single for Add Violence, “Less Than,” is wildly different: it could easily be a New Order or Depeche Mode song. Apparently the closer for the EP is going to be some kind of 12-minutes-long explosion. Both EPs are being released on vinyl—but there’s also a cool “physical component” you can get that’s a messy, literally-falling-apart collection of photos and lyrics printed in dirty ink on sheets of plastic. It gives the music a visceral, experiential urgency that feels refreshingly unique from a band in its third decade.
It’s exciting to hear new music from one of my favorite bands, and it’s even more exciting to hear them add new elements to their sound and see them experimenting with physical artwork. That said, I’m not happy that their musical “experimentation” comes closer to ‘80s-tribute-music than forward-thinking Industrial for 2017, and I think they could be doing much more interesting work if they went in a subtler, more instrumental direction.
I say this because of my deep respect for their work on film scores—particularly those they did for the David Fincher films The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. Fincher gave the duo the creative freedom to write music independently of its usage in the film itself, and based on what was written, Fincher would edit it in where he thought appropriate. This process was most notably used for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack, the sessions for which produced nearly three hours of music—only about an hour of which was used in the film itself (the soundtrack is longer than the movie!). The final product is an astounding Post-Industrial album that could stand on its own. More impressively, the track titles and album artwork literally re-write the narrative to the movie—I won’t spoil either with a discussion of how, but just consider tracks like “Parallel Timeline with Alternate Outcome.” That Reznor and Ross could manage to make such a superb narrative work of instrumental music and still fit it into the confining demands of soundtrack work made for a remake of a movie adaptation of a book speaks to their remaining ability as artists. As recently as 2011, they were able to challenge the artist place and purpose of movie scoring by making a work that simultaneously complements and enhances its film, but which stands as a groundbreaking work of music independently of the film as well.
I don’t mean to say that Reznor should stick to soundtracking—but his consistently incredible instrumental work hints at a potentially fruitful direction for his Nine Inch Nails project. Reznor and Ross clearly still have the musical energy and creatively to take their sound down brilliant new roads—I think these EPs and Hesitation Marks sound like retreads of tired ideas, comparative wastes of their artistic effort, talent, and time. Maybe that kind of instrumental music is contrary to Reznor’s idea of Nine Inch Nails itself—but if that’s the case, we don’t need NIN anymore. If Reznor wants to make critical, powerful music that forces us to reconsider our place in the present world, he shouldn’t be exploring sounds from one or two decades ago. He should continue to innovate—and as a diehard fan, I trust he can.