Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nine Inch Nails' "Pretty Hate Machine" (1989)

My first entry in Discography Rediscovered is the album that inspired me to write this series. To begin with, Pretty Hate Machine was pretty much my favorite album growing up as a teenager. It's electronic beats fueled my teenage "no-one-understands-me" years. This album had all a teenager could ask for, anti-establishment messages, angst-ridden rants, longing-for-love ballads, and plenty of pent-up sexual frustration.

Nine Inch Nails (NIN) is basically the stage name for Trent Reznor. The All Music Guide says that Nine Inch Nails (or the lower case 'nine inch nails' as most fans prefer) was the most successful industrial group of all time. Pretty Hate Machine was Reznor's first album. The story goes that Reznor was working as a janitor at a recording studio and would use the space to record the album in his free time. According to Wikipedia Reznor was inspired by Prince, deciding to play almost all the instruments himself (coincidentally Reznor has a brief cameo as one of the bands in the film Purple Rain). After shopping around his creation he signed with TVT Records and went on to release the album.

And boy oh boy, as a (former) long time fan of NIN I will argue with anyone that Pretty Hate Machine is their best album. For a first album it's an amazing bit of work. All of the songs work, their order is impeccable, and the whole thing is short enough that it's easily listened to all the way through and doesn't bore the listener.

Ok, so listening to it now I realize how much the content of the lyrics don't really resonate with me anymore. Trent Reznor has always played the moody, misunderstood, love-scorned teenager to perfection. It's weird to think he was in his early twenties when he wrote this thing because by the time I was that age I was definitely out of my teenage angst phase, but Reznor continued with this shtick at least through 1999's The Fragile, which is the last album of NIN that I gave a real listen to.

That the songs are little angst-ridden pieces for lonely teenagers does not at all however prevent my continued enjoyment of this album. Like I said, every song is crafted so well. Reznor has a remarkable ear for production, each note, each beat, each industrial blast of noise, even the delivery of the lyrics, are all so pitch perfect. This attention to detail would later catch up with Reznor, holding back the release of The Fragile for several years as Reznor was reportedly a utmost perfectionist who would spend hours working just to get one little sound right.

Let's get into the actual music, shall we? Pretty Hate Machine starts off with one of NIN's most enduringly popular songs, Head Like a Hole. This is the song that pretty much gave NIN a following. I'll just quote AMG's review of the song:
Although the song was a ranting diatribe against corporate and commercial greed, "Head Like a Hole" wasn't really a political critique; the song didn't revolve around carefully considered ideas as much as the force and drama with which Reznor expressed himself. His frothing invective against "god money" was delivered with a barely articulate rage -- growling, wailing, snarling, gnashing his teeth -- that made the song into grand theater. Plus, his backing music was immaculately crafted and produced, driven by a deliberate synthesizer bass riff and overlaid with various sound effects and treated guitars.
Yeah, that's basically it. It's an energetic piece that sets the tone for Reznor's style, showing how he takes the sound of industrial and fits it into the familiar verse-chorus song structure of popular music. Though this song is great, I find that I rarely listen to it, instead opting for some of the other, lesser known tracks on the album.

The second track is Terrible Lie, a mid-tempo accusation against a former lover for her 'terrible lie'. I want to stop here for a moment and mention that one thing I've always enjoyed in an album is when it creates a good flow. I especially love when songs flow from one into the other (one reason I love The Wall so much). Reznor is quite good at this - Head Like a Hole basically bleeds into Terrible Lie. This happens several times on this album, and is present even more in his later works. I'm not sure what about it that makes me enjoy it so much, maybe it's the feeling that the album was meant as a deliberate journey, not just a set of unassociated songs. Anyways, Reznor employs this effect well here and it's one of the reasons I enjoy the album as much as I do.

The third track is Down In It, perhaps the most ambitious song on the album. Looking for a late 80's industrial-pop song that utilizes elements of rap? Look no further! I'm not sure what Reznor was thinking, but it's a great little song that somehow uses a rap/rant structure that references nursery rhymes and children's sayings. And I think it's about drug use.

After this the album begins it's gloomy descent into Reznor's (supposedly) tortured psyche. Sanctified is a slow, moody piece with Reznor basically talking about how he feels that he will be, ahem, sanctified when he, uh, gets inside a woman. It works well in the album. After the energy of the first three songs it brings the energy down, setting up the mood for the album's gloomiest piece (which it deftly flows into without a pause).

Something I Can Never Have was the ballad for my teenage self. A slow piano plays as Reznor sings of some love he can never have. Oh man, it's dripping in full-on teenage "no-one-feels-like-me" depression. His delivery is spot on too. And to top it off it his use of the word "fucking" in the final verse made the song so that we couldn't play it in front of our parents or in public, giving the song a certain mystique that required us to be alone when listening to it, further adding to the drama and the depression (back to his delivery: I love how his voice is nearly cracking as he sings the final chorus, brilliant).

Kinda I Want To is one of the album's only weak points, but it works to bring the energy back, which is quite a feat after the previous song.

This is followed by Sin. It's an interesting enough song, but what I like about it is how it demonstrates Reznor's ear for production. I love the placement of all the sounds, especially with the opening and closing 'whooshes'. Plus the single for this song utilized one of the most interesting fonts I've ever seen (it reads 'sin').

I personally enjoy That's What I Get but it's again not the most necessary song and could be excised from the album without too much change.

After all this angsty depression and scorn can Reznor do something with some humor? Yes, yes he can. The Only Time is the album's only piece with a smidgen of humor. I love the opening lines:
I'm drunk and right now I'm so in love with you
And I don't want to think to much about what we should or shouldn't do
Lay my hands on heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars
while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car
Nothing quite like the feel of something new
I love the lyrics, the little bass guitar, and just the whole vibe of this song.

Finally, the album ends with Ringfinger. As a teenage this was my least favorite song, mainly because we all thought it sounded like disco. As an adult now I have a very different feeling, I really enjoy it and don't think at all that it sounds like disco. I also like how it devolves into a bunch of industrial noise which closes out the album.

I also want to stop and mention another album here. I recently got my hands on a digital copy of Purest Feeling. This is an unofficial NIN album that counts as a bootleg more than anything else. It's a demo version of Pretty Hate Machine and for any fan of NIN I highly recommend it. Not only is it a rough cut of PHM but it contains lyrics and even a pair of songs that never made it on to PHM. It's like discovering that there's an alternate version of your favorite album, complete with new songs, plus it's arguably a bit happier in tone. There's a different order to the songs, some of the staples don't make it (Head Like a Hole), and the audio quality of it sounds like Trent is performing live in front of you in the studio. It also relies heavily on sound samples, most notably from American Graffiti. The song Ringfinger here is called 'Twist' and instead of a song about commitment it's now about S&M bondage. Take a listen to Twist here, and the never released song Maybe Just Once here.

So what I have I rediscovered? Obviously I think the album is still fantastic. It doesn't sound dated and is still easily listenable. My only problem with it is that the lyrics don't speak to me anymore, they're just too dramatic and full of some sort of angst I just don't have anymore. It's a great album for a teenager, better than that Linkin Park those kids nowadays listen to (though if I were a teenager now I'd probably be listening to Linkin Park too). That's it for me this time, I'll (hopefully) be back later. After all, there's a whole closet of albums waiting to be rediscovered.


Little Earl said...

Nice write-up Z-man!

I haven't listened to Pretty Hate Machine in a while but you may have inspired me to do so. The last time I heard it I certainly thought it was deserving of AMG's patented "five stars." It set a standard for teen angst rock that has sadly not been matched. I might actually prefer The Downward Spiral but will refrain from engaging in a protracted argument. Let me just say that I think Pretty Hate Machine might be more consistent overall, but The Downward Spiral's highs are higher.

And I know the album didn't really find its audience until the '90s, but can you really put it on a "Best albums of the '90s" list and not watch your nose grow Pinocchio-style?

At any rate, keep it coming. Frankly, I was looking forward to a little more "Oddest songs from the '00s," but the muse is a fickle mistress.

Herr Zrbo said...

I might get back to oddest songs of the 00s, I still have some more up my sleeve, just need to find the motivation to write.

Yeah, the album is technically an 80s album, but it arrived November of '89, so considering that most people probably didn't hear it until the 90s I put it down as a 'best of the 90s album'.

Also, I was unaware that you had ever bothered to listen to nine inch nails at all.

Little Earl said...

I am an American male who experienced his teenage years in the '90s. Do I not bleed?

True, I was no '90s rock connoisseur. But I was feeling really depressed one weekend in 1996 and I decided to borrow Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral, and Wish from a friend. Man did that hit the spot. "God is dead/No one cares/If there is a hell/I'll see you there." What else need be said?

He's a great producer who knows his way around a good hook. The lyrics are over the top and you can choose to either laugh with him or laugh at him. He's no Britpop, though.

Would you say that anything after 1994 is worth hearing? I know he's suddenly gone all prolific on us, but he seemed like he was past his prime even IN his prime.

Herr Zrbo said...

Well, The Fragile is interesting, but it's kind of hard to get into. Plus it's a double-album so that counts against it. Otherwise, yeah... like I said I've only given a cursory listen to anything after 1999. The first three albums that you listed are really all you need.

Little Earl said...

So I've just discovered that it's OK to say you like Nine Inch Nails now, because Pitchfork has given the re-release of Pretty Hate Machine a 9.5 rating.

Pitchfork Album Reviews: Pretty Hate Machine

Some highlights:

"For reasons I won't get into here, my little brother spent the first couple weeks of ninth grade in a Baltimore psych ward. While he was in there, he desperately wanted one of his tapes, and that tape was Pretty Hate Machine, an album already a few years old at that point. Rather than bringing it to him, my dad decided to listen to it, making it about 90 seconds in-- to the first "Bow down before the one you serve/ You're going to get what you deserve" bit on "Head Like a Hole"-- before deciding the album was Satanic and throwing it in the trash. I tried arguing the point with him ("No, dad, he's talking about money! Listen to it!"), but he didn't budge."

"Much of Pretty Hate Machine concerns a simple scenario: Being young but feeling that your life is already over, that your best days are already behind you..."Something I Can Never Have" is where Reznor's vulnerability really becomes his greatest asset. His scream gone, his voice turns to pure bottomless dejection. He's carefully considered every aspect of his life, and nothing looks good."

Herr Zrbo said...

Whew, saved by hipsters! I was worried my cred was slipping.

Also, another reader pointed out to me that Terrible Lie is not about an ex-lover but God (in the little guitar riff that precedes each verse there's a very muted 'hey god').