Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 82 - Nine Inch Nails

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

When I was in high school, there were kids who used to walk around with "NIИ" stickers on their binders. They wore dark clothes and whatever accessories they could pick up at Hot Topic and (back when I was younger) their tastes seemed far too cool for me. This was particularly true concerning their allegiance to the Nine Inch Nails, a band which seemed to represent something very mature and adult and deep and important. I knew nothing about their music, but I knew so little about any popular music that I simply assumed these things about Nine Inch Nails were true.

Now that I'm older and finally listening to the music I thought I wasn't cool enough to be into before, I'm struck with how much the Nine Inch Nails relies on embarrassingly melodramatic bombast. It caters toward the worst aesthetic propensities of the high school goth, including the wallowing self-pity, the noisy drone of rage at some unspecified target, and the vague inclination toward some sort of nihilism. 

It's strange to look at Nine Inch Nails now and see a large amount of emotional immaturity in the music. Once upon a time, these buzzing guitars and tortured-soul lyrics seemed too "adult" for my youthful ears, something large and frightening and best left alone. Now I listen to this music and it seems too childish (or at least the lyrics do). Shock value has lost a lot of credibility as I grow older. 

Was there a magical window in which Nine Inch Nails would have been the perfect music for me? I don't think so. This was one of my least favorite weeks in a long time; I have no qualms with saying that this isn't my type of scene at all. I'll leave Nine Inch Nails where they belong - back in high school. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew that I lot of kids who dressed in black in my high school were really into the Nine Inch Nails. I'd also heard the song "Hurt," but only the Johnny Cash cover. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to The Downward Spiral (1994) every day this week. I also listened to Pretty Hate Machine (1989) three times, and The Fragile (1999) twice. 

WHAT I LIKED: There wasn't a whole lot that I was really in love with this week. I will say that Pretty Hate Machine was probably my favorite of the albums I listened to. Though it sounds a bit dated, I liked the album's more traditional song structures and synth beats when compared to the often-directionless soundscapes of later Nine Inch Nails albums. Take "Head Like A Hole," which proves that Trent Reznor knows how to write a great riff if he wants to. And a song like "Terrible Lie" is firmly grounded in eighties synthpop, but that makes it more fun to my ears.

There were moments in The Downward Spiral where I started to realize what all the fuss was about, even if the album never clicked for me as a whole. Bits of masterful electronic arrangements emerge - the strange piano that comes in halfway through "March of the Pigs" is completely unexpected yet somehow fitting. Reznor knows how put together a good set of sounds, even if he never quite manages to combine them into a decent song. "Closer" is another good example like this, as it crescendoes with sonic layers all fitting over top of each other in an impressive way; I only wish Reznor provided the voice or lyrics to match. 

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Nine Inch Nails seems to have gotten so caught up in making dense sounds of anguish and fury that all rules of decent song-writing have been lost. Reznor can write riffs and hooks and catchy lines, and hints of this still emerge, but it's as if he enjoys eschewing this for layers of sonic sludge. "Mr. Self Destruct" could have been a halfway decent track of Reznor didn't go overboard on the loud/soft dynamics, making the loud nothing but uninteresting static noise, and the soft barely audible mutterings. He's trying too hard, and it shows. 

And so much of Nine Inch Nails' output comes across as trying too hard, even while it circles (spirals?) and meanders around without ever going anywhere. While corny, Pretty Hate Machine at least has some drive and direction to the music. On The Downward Spiral, songs like "Reptile" are swimming in place, indulging in their own (admittedly well-produced) sonic landscape but not using these sounds to any great effect. It's as if Reznor enjoys wandering through the sounds he created so much that he doesn't quite see them as tools to making music anymore, but instead just ends in and of themselves. 

Finally, there's the lyrics. Blah. Where to even begin? "Something I Can Never Have"? ("Gray would be the color, if I had a heart"). "Closer" ("I want to fuck you like an animal!"). "Heresy"? ("Your God is dead and no one cares / If there is a hell I will see you there"). No, the award goes to "Starfuckers, Inc." with the doozy of a chorus "STARFUCKERS! STARFUCKERS! STARFUCKERS INCORPORATED! STARFUCKERS!" 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's With Teeth (2005), Year Zero (2007), and The Slip (2008). But, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not that enthralled with Nine Inch Nails. I might be willing to check out Ghosts I-IV (2008), because in general I think Reznor's instrumental stuff is more interesting than when he tries to sing. There's also the soundtrack to The Social Network, which Craig has promoted multiple times.


I can't tell if I like this because it's actually a good performance, or just because it reminds me of the (superior) Cash version. Regardless, it shows that Reznor can write an actual melody when he wants to. 


This song is actually pretty terrible. But it's a good indicator of the aspects of Pretty Hate Machine I liked that would later be abandoned.