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Album of the Day — October 20
Nine Inch Nails — Pretty Hate Machine
Nine Inch Nails — Pretty Hate Machine
Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine
Let’s be clear, Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor, and Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails.
Like it or not.
And there are many reasons to like it.
Industrial bands like Foetus and Ministry are often a brutal assault on your senses. Reznor’s genius was that he took this creation, Nine Inch Nails, and was able to marry that auditory assault with pop sensibilities.
[Fun Fact #1: The band’s name, and signature song, were inspired by a quote by Al Jourgensen, lead singer of Ministry: “Listening to Ministry is like having a nine-inch nail hammered into your head like a hole.”]
Reznor has even copped to industrial music’s influence on Nine Inch Nails:
“Nine Inch Nails was that doorway into the more legitimate or obscure industrial bands.”
If you think it's easy to blue two disparate genres like that, see bands like Tool or Filter. While those bands have had some commercial and critical success, none of these like-minded bands have sustained both Reznor’s and Nine Inch Nails' popularity and influence.
Working on the lowest rung in a Cleveland recording studio, Reznor ripped a page from every other artist who worked in a studio’s playbook — he used any downtime to develop his own music.
A skilled musician even then, it was Reznor who played all the instruments in his music. Eventually landing a manager, they began shopping the demo of the songs that Reznor had created.
Attracting a fair amount of interest, Reznor signed with TVT Records (which serves as a cautionary tale about record contracts …but that’s a different story).
Pretty Hate Machine was recorded in numerous studios. Considering that Nine Inch Nails was a one-person show, traveling to the studios was easy, and it allowed Reznor to work with producers like Flood, Keith LeBlanc, Adrian Sherwood, and John Fryer.
Like he did for his demo, Reznor refused to record the album with a conventional band — recording Pretty Hate Machine mostly by himself.
Incorporating pop elements into industrial music not only seems counterintuitive but is also anathema to the genre. And yet Pretty Hate Machine makes it work. It’s loaded with catchy riffs, not noise riffs, and verse-chorus-verse song structures, not the tooth grinding repetitiveness of electronic beats.
And angst. Music was beginning to become REALLY angsty in 1989 (wait until 1991).
According to Reznor:
“I couldn’t function in society very well. And the LP [Pretty Hate Machine] became a product of that.”
By incorporating his angst and feelings of betrayal into his lyrics, Pretty Hate Machine would serve as a harbinger of the grunge explosion that would soon envelop the globe.
The record spawned three singles, “Down In It,” “Head Like a Hole,” and “Sin,” with “Head Like a Hole,” remaining both a critic and fan favorite. In fact, it’s also a favorite among Reznor’s contemporaries. These are some of the artists who have covered “Head Like a Hole”:
Showbread (a Christian rock band)
Miley Cyrus (as Ashley O in the for television series Black Mirror)
[Fun Fact #2: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “Head Like A Hole” was one of the “lyrically questionable” songs pulled from the radio at the suggestion of Clear Channel Communications, a company that owned over 1,200 radio stations.]
Released in 1989, Pretty Hate Machine would never chart on Billboard above #75. This is an album that gained momentum slowly and only by word of mouth. It would take two years for the album to be certified Gold, but by 1995, Pretty Hate Machine would be one of the first independent albums to be certified Platinum.
As both Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor’s profile increased, Pretty Hate Machine continued to sell and still places on several lists as one of the best releases of the 1980s.
Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in his original review in 1990: “Reznor’s lyrics juxtapose general despair with lovelorn sentiments on the edge of ordinary pop. Luckily, his voice is surrounded by music that has a sure beat and enough unexpected jolts to support his posturing. Singers don’t pretend to be troubled innocents; they’re implicated, just like everyone else, in a culture of duplicity and malign self-interest. They may be bitter and sardonic, but they’re not shocked — even before graduation, they’ve already seen too much.”
Writing in Rolling Stone, Michael Azerrad said: “NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, is shot through with angst-ridden sex, identity crises and religious doubt … [their] 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.”
Tom Popson from the Chicago Tribune did not have any enthusiasm for Pretty Hate Machine, and didn’t hide it: “Reznor`s vocals-which sometimes have a certain singing-in-the-shower flatness-range from whispers to raging screams. The open-ended, troubled-personal-journey lyrics, meanwhile, are laced with generous helpings of depression and angst. The playing and production get points for introducing some variety to the industrial style, but the moments of soap-on-a-rope singing tend to cancel them out.”
Reznor would go on through the typical rites of passage for any rock star. Most notably, mega-stardom with The Downward Spiral and all the trappings that accompany mega-stardom. Luckily he emerged from that tunnel with all his facilities and talent intact.
Trent Reznor would go on to collaborate with producer and musician Atticus Ross and:
In 2011, Reznor and Ross won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and the Academy Award for Best Original Score for their work on The Social Network.
In 2012, their work on Girl with a Dragon Tattoo got them nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.
In 2013, they would win the Grammy Award for Best Score for Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.
Reznor and Ross won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series for their work on the series Watchmen.
The bond between Reznor and Ross is so tight that after 25 years of treating Nine Inch Nails as a solo venture, Ross became the only other Nine Inch Nails official member.
Nine Inch Nails remains an active entity today. On March 26, 2020, they released Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, their tenth and eleventh studio albums — the sequels to their 2008 instrumental album Ghosts I–IV.
The albums were released for free as a show of solidarity with the band’s fans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Simply put, Pretty Hate Machine holds up quite well and is a Pretty Good Album.