Sunday, October 20, 2019

nine inch nails’ pretty hate machine is 30

nine inch nails released their debut album, pretty hate machine, 30 years ago today, October 20, 1989.

Rolling Stone reported a few months later:

Nine Inch Nails’ sound is dominated by clanging synths and sardonic, shrieking vocals. But Reznor stretches that industrial-strength noise over a pop framework, and his harrowing but catchy music has taken the college charts by storm.
The conventional wisdom might be that the downward spiral is the magnum opus of NIИ. But for me, their greatest has always been pretty hate machine — the original expression of NIИ in its most raw purity. (“i gave you my purity...”)

Today I listened to the remastered version of the whole album with headphones. NIИ sing about how there’s “nothing quite like the feel of something new,” but there’s also nothing quite like returning to something that hasn’t been new for a long time but still has the capacity to shock and invigorate.

head like a hole” starts the album by signaling from the first words that this song and this album are going to be about power and control: “god money, i’ll do anything for you. god money, just tell me what you want me to...” The song later seems to become more political, with lines like: “god money, let’s go dancing on the backs of the bruised...”

That song ends with a disorienting segue to the next song, “terrible lie,” which has been a powerful opener to NIИ’s famously great live shows. The singer’s obsessively dependent refrain is: “don’t take it away from me, i need someone to hold on to...” (the equivalent to the downward spiral’s “nothing can stop me now, ‘cause i don’t care anymore.”)

down in it” has trent reznor (who the liner notes helpfully tell us “is” nine inch nails) rapping over eerily atmospheric samples. To be a NIИ fan is to know the lyrics to this by heart. (“kind of like a cloud...”)

sanctified” is one of many songs in which reznor grapples with religion. (“heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel, as she walks me through the nicest parts of hell...”)

something i can never have” is the “hurt” of pretty hate machine, and possibly even more hauntingly beautiful. A quintessentially self-effacing NIИ line: “grey would be the color ... if i had a heart.”

sin” is an anthem of power and control. The song keeps coming back to a “shah” sound that bounces back and forth between the left and right speakers, as if to beg us to listen with headphones. The song reaches some of the most intense moments of the album after the second chorus, when the instruments steadily build up to a heavy synth riff over a wall of guitars.

the only time” reveals a funkier and more comical side of NIИ. (“my moral standing is lying down...”)

Some of the other, poppier songs on the album are less memorable, but they remind us that while we might think of nine inch nails as ‘90s alternative music, NIИ started in the ‘80s.