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.