Nine Inch Nails

      Pretty Hate Machine (TVT, 1989)
     Broken (Nothing/Interscope, 1992)
   Fixed (Nothing/Interscope, 1992)
      The Downward Spiral (Nothing/Interscope, 1994)
   Further Down the Spiral (Nothing/Interscope, 1995)
     The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope, 1999)
   Things Falling Apart (Nothing/Interscope, 2000)
    And All That Could Have Been (Nothing/Interscope, 2002)
    With Teeth (Nothing/Interscope, 2005)
    Year Zero (Interscope, 2007)
   Year Zero Remixed (Interscope, 2007)
   Ghosts I-IV (The Null Corporation, 2008)
    The Slip (The Null Corporation, 2008)

When Todd Rundgren came up with the title The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect back in 1983, he couldn’t have known that he had just summed up the future appeal of Trent Reznor, the leader and only full-time member of Nine Inch Nails. No tortured artist is more tortured than Reznor. And he’s really angry about it: angry at himself, angry at the powers that be, angry at humanity in general…and let’s not even discuss God.

Emerging from the noisy subculture of industrial music, which wasn’t known for its love of melody, Reznor combined one-man-band facility and a gift for sound manipulation rivaling prog-rock forebears Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel with a pronounced talent for penning catchy tunes. His 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, wasn’t a big seller when it was first released, and some people complained that it was lightweight compared to, say, Foetus or Ministry. Fifteen years and many millions of copies later, those complaints remain valid, but it doesn’t matter; clearly, NIN was on to something that no one else had quite figured out yet. The surging metal guitars of “Head Like a Hole,” the disarming detour into rap on “Down in It,” the jarring bursts of white noise that punctuate “Sanctified,” all bespeak an artist already near the top of his game—and they make it easy to overlook the more juvenile and narcissistic lyrical moments.

Three years later, following a nasty feud with his record company, Reznor seemed determined to never be called a lightweight again. Broken, a six-song EP with two bonus tracks (including a cover of Adam Ant’s “Physical”), ups the sonic ante considerably, unleashing distorted howls of rage on “Wish” and “Gave Up.” But this was only a warm up for The Downward Spiral. The perfect soundtrack to a nervous breakdown, a suicide, or just a bad, bad day, Reznor’s masterwork blends perversely irresistible pop (the Prince-like “Closer,” featuring the infamous chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”), soothing ambient instrumentals (“A Warm Place”), and violent noisefests (“Big Man With a Gun”). Some of the words are still cringeworthy—yowling “God is dead” (on “Heresy”) won’t shock anyone who’s taken a philosophy class—but by the time we reach the apotheosis of self-loathing that is “Hurt,” there’s no denying that The Downward Spiral is a powerful statement, and one of the landmark albums of the Nineties.

Five years passed before its followup was completed (Reznor did a lot of film work in the interim, including the soundtracks to Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway). NIN’s monumental double-disc bid for the art-rock crown, The Fragile sounds fantastic from start to finish, but there aren’t enough memorable tunes underneath the alluring surfaces. The best thing about the album is that it suggests Reznor’s poormiserable-me persona may be reaching its limits. Calling a song “We’re in This Together” is a positive sign, and the exhilarating “Starfuckers, Inc.” indicates that our boy may have a sense of humor after all, albeit a black one.

In its current one-disc form, And All That Could Have Been is your garden-variety live album. Song arrangements differ slightly from the studio versions and Reznor curses more often, but it’s far from a necessity. Originally, though, it was released as two separate discs, the second focusing on Reznor’s quieter side: cool piano-oriented ballads and instrumentals. Now out of print, that second disc, subtitled Still, is worth hunting down.

With Teeth has a lot of sonic firepower (inviting Dave Grohl into the studio to contribute some jackhammer drumming didn't hurt), and a couple of terrific songs, especially "The Hand That Feeds." But neither Reznor's songwriting nor his performances budge an inch from the territory they staked out years earlier. Year Zero is more of the same, with perhaps a few more varieties of digital distortion thrown in (the second half of "The Great Destroyer" is a drum loop run through seemingly every filter ever programmed). Lyrically, it's a high-concept suite about a future American dystopia, which was expanded into an "alternate reality game" rolled out alongside it—there's not exactly a coherent narrative, but it's a good excuse for Reznor to murmur, growl and shout about his usual bugaboos.

Finally beholden to nobody else's record label, Reznor recorded a peculiar offering to his cult: Ghosts, a two-hour set of mostly-instrumental mood pieces (with a bit of extra guitar from Adrian Belew). Released in formats ranging from a free, abridged set of MP3s to a mega-deluxe $300 package, it's nobody's favorite NIN album—these are textures more than compositions, although some of them are pretty cool as textures go. The Slip, recorded quickly released two months later, really is a present for the fans: Reznor offered the whole thing as a free download. The clammy, mountain-scaling riffs of "Echoplex" are the album's highlight, but from the moment Reznor starts yowling "I don't feel anything at all" on "1,000,000," it's clear that this is going to be another totally acceptable NIN-by-numbers record: more BDSM imagery, more grime-and-oil-caked disco beats, more icy piano interludes, neither an advance nor a retreat.

A true studio rat, Reznor doesn’t want to leave his records alone, even after they’ve been released. So he turns the tracks over to other studio rats and lets them mess around for a while; recently, he's even been offering his multitrack recordings to the public to play around with. Four NIN releases have been followed by a disc consisting solely of remixes: first Fixed, then Further Down the Spiral and Things Falling Apart, and most recently Year Zero Remixed. Though not without interest, these collections don’t add up to much without easy access to a club-level sound system and the intoxicant(s) of your choice—unless you’re a studio rat too, that is.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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