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Review: Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine Reissued

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One of industrial music’s finest hours, Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine is being reissued by Rykodisc on November 22 (not yet available in Amazon). Available only by import for several years, there will be rejoicing in the streets when Trent Reznor’s explosive, corrosive, but also touching classic decorates the shelves at domestic prices once again.

NIN major domo Trent Reznor trained in classical piano from the age of five, his prodigious talents encouraged by the grandparents who raised him in the rural Western Pennsylvania town of Mercer after his parents divorced. Not openly aggressive and drawn to music and technology, Reznor was well-outside Mercer’s inner circle of football players and prom queens. However the musical Boy Scout was also drawn to the vicarious violence of comic books and movies – the beginnings of revenge fantasies at the heart of some of his darkest music. At about the age of 13, Reznor realized he could express how he felt “through a musical instrument,” a fundamental relief and challenge.

After graduating from high school in ’83, Reznor majored in computer engineering at Allegheny College for a year before he moved to the big city of Cleveland, Ohio. Reznor sold synths at Pi Keyboards, then worked as a janitor and programmer at the Right Stuff recording studio. Meanwhile, he played with several bands including the Urge, the Innocent, Lucky Pierre, Exotic Birds, and Slam Bam Boo, but it wasn’t until he went solo and developed his own material that his talent blossomed.

Reznor revealed this process in a 1991 interview: “I had tried to write songs on and off, but I never seemed to be able to get it together. It didn’t feel right. I had kept a journal of my most private and personal feelings, and I had no intention of ever showing it to anyone else, let alone publishing it. In a sickening flash one night, I realized I had to write songs from my journal. I felt naked and embarrassed, but I knew it was real, and that is what my songs were missing: emotional reality.”

“Nine Inch Nails” (which has no particular meaning other than it sounded threatening and was easy to abbreviate) was comprised of one member, Trent Reznor (with editing help from roommate Chris Vrenna), on the brilliant 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, released on TVT Records. Pretty Hate Machine, though technically crude by today’s standards, is still Reznor’s most satisfying work. The alternately ominous and bouncy synths, samples, drum loops and guitars convey a very real brew of self-hatred, unrequited love, defiance, spiritual despair, and an almost-innocent idealism.

The industrial dance anthem “Head Like A Hole” is heavily electronic, with insinuating vocals, primitive drum loops and an urgent synth line in the verse, yielding to pummeling guitar and wrenching vocals in the chorus.

Among the riches of Pretty Hate is perhaps Reznor’s most profound song, “Down In It”:

Just then a tiny little dot caught my eye
It was just about too small to see,
But I watched it way too long

And that dot was pulling me down
I was up above it, now I’m down in it

I used to have something inside
Now just this hole that’s open wide
I used to want it all
I used to be somebody

This emptiness, this encroaching void, this sense that life is entropic is what the other industrialists feel as well, but these personal feelings are what the other’s avoid. This is not vague philosophizing; these are thoughts wrested from the soul like emotional fishhooks. You can hear the flesh tear.

“Something I Can Never Have” has elegantly orchestrated keyboards, and weaves natural and unnatural sounds around Reznor’s half-sung, half-spoken vocal, which reveals painful vulnerability and bittersweet insight.

“Terrible Lie” rails against what Reznor believes to be the deception of spiritual salvation with a vulnerable, almost child-like rage; and “Sin” is a propulsive, insinuating dancefloor standard that revels in the enticements of the Dark Side without ever being able to quite ditch the concerns of Conscience.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Tim Jarrett

    And it’s about damned time. The availability of this album has been held up by TVT for many years now following Reznor’s defection to Interscope. I think the irony of Rykodisk picking up the rights to do this reissue after TVT had their assets sold is pretty colossal.

    But the best thing is that I’m pretty sure someone will actually get around to making this available in iTunes etc. now. One of the most maddening things about the whole (legal) digital music revolution has been the number of pivotal titles that are just missing from the catalogs because of legal issues, rights issues, labels with craniorectal inversion issues, etc. I’ll be really celebrating when I see PHM in the iTMS.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent points, thanks Tim!

  • El Bicho

    What’s good about Trent’s lyrics is that while personal, they are also universal. “Down In It” is about heroin addiction, yet even people who haven’t done drugs might have some distracting, debiltating vice or desire that keeps them from their full potential, so they can relate.

  • Eric Olsen

    yes, the key for him was when he realized that the more personal he got, the more universal the application

  • Mark Sahm

    Nice article, Captain EO. The summary brought back many fond memories of when I first heard PHM in ’91.

    You ever see them live? I’d be interested in hearing how you think NIN compared to other shows.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Mark! yes, seem them live several times. The first Lollapalooza was wildest and most riveting, I think.

  • Mark Sahm

    I saw NIN in 1994 and 2000. Totally different shows, since I was in the pit for the first, and a mile away for the 2nd. But both were intense. I read in Rolling Stone yesterday that Reznor is planning on doing some solo shows, which would be interesting. Here’s the link.

  • El Bicho

    In the Universal Amph Pit in ’91 as they opened for Jane’s Addiction, one of my best complete shows ever, then later that same year as they opened for Lollapalooza at Irvine Meadows. They were the best band of the day. Even though, we were back on the lawn and the sun was still up they took complete control. PHM sounded so much better live.

    In ’94, they headlined at UA, put on a great show, played their asses off and the visuals were fantatstic. Then, I think in ’95, saw the NIN/Bowie tour at the Forum. Again, they were very good and they made great song choices when they played with Bowie. Bowie sung Reptile and maybe Hurt. Trent sung Scary Monsters and another. Felt bad afterwards because once Trent left a constant torrent of audience members left until Bowie ended.

    2000 at the Pond, complete opposite end of the area, a handful of rows from ceiling. Band sounded very good, but they weren’t as wild. Visuals still very good, especially the lights. Dopey kids just wanted to hear “Closer” and leave.

    Just saw them a few weeks ago at Hollywood Bowl. Thought it was good, but wasn’t blown away. Haven’t really clicked with the new album yet. Sounds like too much other stuff he’s done better, but haven’t given it my full attention in quite a while.

    I would probably still see him again, depending on the album he’s supporting and ticket price. The solo show would be interesting.

  • El Bicho

    Are Mark and I the only two people who saw NIN?!

  • Scott Butki

    I saw NIN at a small club in L.A. before they got big.
    It was one of the best shows I ever saw.

  • Sean Alexander

    Saw Trent at the 9:30 club around ’90, then again at the George Mason Patriot Center around ’92 with Marylin Manson.

    The relivence of his lyrics and quality of the music changed my outlook on music and the effects linger to this day.