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Discussions: Nine Inch Nails

By Ryan Nichols & Cole Zercoe; May 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM 

Trent Reznor

In our latest installment of Discussions, Ryan Nichols and Cole Zercoe tackle Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

COLE ZERCOE: Since a big part of these discussions revolves around opinion, it feels fitting to start with a question tied to that subject. It seems like the critical opinion of Trent Reznor and the Nine Inch Nails catalogue has risen pretty substantially in recent years, despite the fact that Reznor’s masterworks, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, are each over a decade old at this point. Why do you think that is?

RYAN NICHOLS: Since Trent returned in 2005, the fan base has dramatically shifted. Some fans of Nine Inch Nails may still be into the rock bands of the 90’s era, but many, (including the band itself) have shifted their musical tastes. Because of this, what Nine Inch Nails’ music is associated with has changed. Nine Inch Nails were always a great deal deeper than most of their hard rock contemporaries in the 90’s, but only recently has that depth been acknowledged. Now that Trent’s contemporaries are artists considered to be working at a higher level, I think Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor’s musical output is finally being held within that same higher regard. A perfect example of this is the reaction to the reissue of Pretty Hate Machine. The majority of critics held the reissue in high regard, despite the fact that a few years ago, the album had nowhere near the same amount of critical praise it received in 2010. This isn’t a coincidence.

COLE: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I’d definitely agree. Despite the Nine Inch Nails/Reznor aesthetic remaining relatively steadfast throughout the years – the perception of what Nine Inch Nails is and what is associated with it has, without a doubt, changed. It’s a bit unfair, really, given that the depth to Reznor’s musical output has always been there. Since you touched on different Nine Inch Nails eras, maybe we should move toward exploring that area. What do you think of Nine Inch Nails circa 2005 and onward versus the “classic” Nine Inch Nails of 1989 to 2000?

RYAN: Clearly the depth has been there. Even before The Fragile, Reznor had a tendency to go deeper with his music as opposed to his contemporaries at the time. Musically, I prefer the 1989-2000 “classic” times for Nine Inch Nails. I feel Trent’s best two albums came from this period with The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. There was a stronger focus on emotion and intensity as opposed to the modern day Nine Inch Nails’ focus on instrumental prowess and political themes. Not that this is bad. I think Year Zero is Reznor’s third best record, and on some days, it’s my favorite. I’m a huge fan of the more “mature” Reznor – with his newfound approach to electronic work and songwriting. Even weaker albums like With Teeth and The Slip still have their strengths. There’s actually a lot of similarities to the work of Reznor and his frequent collaborator, director David Fincher. Fincher’s Seven and Fight Club are my two favorite works, but the more focused and mature Zodiac can be a favorite too, and is often overlooked, much like Year Zero.

COLE: It’s funny because I feel like Reznor has all the same tools and talent at his disposal, but for some reason has chosen to take the Nine Inch Nails sound into a more – I don’t want to say straightforward – but perhaps a less risky territory than what was presented with The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. I’ve always thought Ghosts I-IV has been the closest Reznor has gotten in recent years to that creative space he was in with both The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. There’s some tracks on there that really beg to be fully formed songs, like “4 Ghosts I.” I listen to a track like that and it feels like the natural, true progression from where Reznor left off in 1999.

RYAN: I completely agree with that, With Teeth and The Slip seem a lot more basic. While With Teeth has a few of his strongest songs, (“Beside You in Time” and “Right Where it Belongs,” for example) the harder tracks such as “The Collector” come off as Reznor on auto-pilot. Not that those songs are necessarily bad, but something about them is lacking. It’s the same case with The Slip. The first six tracks are aggressive, sure, but still seem somewhat basic compared to the risks Reznor took in the 1990’s. I don’t expect him to write lyrics with that sort of intensity anymore, that makes sense. He’s matured. Plenty of great lyricists go through a dramatic shift. But still, musically, something is missing. Ghosts was more promising. With that level of instrumental and emotional depth, plus his recent soundtrack work, I could see the new Nine Inch Nails material coming in 2012 being much deeper, and more in the vein of the classic works.

COLE: And it’s not even the lyrics that are really the issue, to me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be liked in the recent Nine Inch Nails output. “Me, I’m Not” and “The Great Destroyer” are some of the best tracks Reznor’s ever done. But I feel like Nine Inch Nails is at the height of its powers when it’s operating, instrumentally, in a mode that is a little more off-kilter, when the songs work more as movements than as closed-ended pop songs. The Fragile and Still are probably the best examples of what I’m talking about. Both of those works were created with an atmosphere in mind that often took precedence over the individual tracks. They work best when taken as a whole. It’s a skill Reznor’s always had, which makes his choice to get into film scoring come as no surprise. It’ll be interesting to see what form the next Nine Inch Nails album takes. A part of me loves the idea of Reznor returning to it with his film experience in tow, but another part of me is nervous. Hopefully his time working in that particular form hasn’t worn him out on the idea of letting the music breathe. The one thing that has me really excited with what Nine Inch Nails could be in its next iteration is the track Reznor did for Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. What did you think of that track?

RYAN: Yeah, I think Reznor’s music works really well when it doesn’t necessarily hinge on a melody. Take “La Mer” or “The Way is Out Through,” for instance, or something like “The Great Below.” While these all have some sort of melody within them, their greater aspect is this almost cinematic atmosphere that songs such as “Letting You” or “Capital G” lack. I’d be interested to see Reznor do more things like the Tetsuo theme. That track seemed to incorporate the sounds of a lot more of his modern influences, which is great. It was noisy, cruel, and in some parts almost evil. I’d be interested in seeing Nine Inch Nails taken in this direction, now that Reznor has How to Destroy Angels to serve as his lighter musical outlet.

COLE: I think the reason I like the Tetsuo theme so much isn’t necessarily because of its heaviness, but because it works in such a chaotic space. That track is all over the place instrumentally, yet in a very controlled way. It’s probably the best modern example of Reznor’s precision when it comes to crafting something that sounds so unhinged yet so carefully constructed at the same time. There’s also a grandness to it that many of his recent output somewhat lacks, a sort of density in sound to the point that it almost feels suffocating. And yet, there’s as much beauty to the track as there is abrasiveness. On that note, I’m curious as to what space you think Reznor works best in. I’m getting the feeling you gravitate more toward the aggressive side, so let me ask – musically, what’s your favorite Nine Inch Nails song?

RYAN: It is controlled chaos. I’d actually say that’s a great way to describe a ton of Nine Inch Nails’ music. Most of The Fragile is controlled chaos, in lyrics, music, and composition. But musically, I actually go more for the lusher, more beautifully composed bits than I do the aggression. I’d have to say “La Mer” is probably my favorite, because it blends both elements of what makes Reznor’s music work. There’s beautiful, pensive moments alongside a really intense, aggressive middle section that, in a way, hits you harder than some of Reznor’s heavier tracks. Granted, a song like “Letting You” or “Big Man With a Gun” is very blunt in its heaviness, but there’s something about the dynamics of a song like “La Mer” that makes it much stronger. There’s a lot going on in that track, and it’s a tremendous piece of music. The best part of songs like “La Mer,” The Fragile, and works in that vein is that they have this deeply cinematic feel, but in a way that’s much more powerful. I can’t separate “La Mer” from the lily pads and water droplets of And All That Could Have Been, nor can I separate the images played during “The Great Below” from that same live work, yet I couldn’t picture those songs in a movie. So it makes sense in a way that Reznor’s scaled back a bit with his film scores. They’re powerful, but in a different way than the tracks I just mentioned.

COLE: In a lot of ways, the various musical spaces Reznor works within have never been more segregated than they have been in recent years. When you think of How To Destroy Angels, or the soundtrack work, or even individual Nine Inch Nails records, everything has been compartmentalized. For instance, we got a collection of purely instrumental tracks in Ghosts, followed by a collection of mostly rock songs in The Slip. This wasn’t really the case in the first Nine Inch Nails era. In those days, you’d have a track like “Big Man with a Gun” followed immediately by something like “A Warm Place.” This allowed for a lot of strong musical contrast and movement in those records – which in turn created a greater sense of the almost cinematic feel you’re referring to. I think lumping things together has somewhat lessened their respective impacts, but at the same time, it’s a bit early to really know how these various different outlets will eventually influence one another. With How to Destroy Angels’ first full-length due this year and the inevitability of a new Nine Inch Nails record, hopefully we’ll see things start to blend together again.

As for my favorite track, it has to be “And All That Could Have Been” off of Still. There’s something about that song’s ability to sound as immense as it does intimate that summarizes the entirety of The Fragile era within one track. In fact, all of Still acts as a bleak, but fitting epilogue to that era. It’s definitely Reznor at his most broken, and in turn it can be difficult to listen to, but there’s such a beauty to how vividly portrayed Reznor’s headspace was in that record. It’s something very few albums ever manage to successfully capture – and a major reason why I’m continually drawn to both that song and Still as a whole. It’s a moment in time – a portrait of a man at rock bottom without any indication whatsoever that he’ll make it out alive. A large amount of Nine Inch Nails’ output revolves around that sort of thematic space, but I don’t think it ever got as precise or as unrelenting as it did during that period.

RYAN: The segregation of his material is an interesting point, and makes me wonder if Reznor is trying to ditch the limitations and expectations that come with the Nine Inch Nails name. Generally, the fans have been very receptive to these various different projects, but I wonder how fans would react to material without Trent’s name or established musical history attached to it. It feels as if he’s continually tried to break away from it in recent years. Your choice of “And All That Could Have Been” is linked to that, in a way. That Trent doesn’t really exist in his current material – it’s a version of him that feels almost alien at this point, given his current musical identity.

COLE: It’s precisely that sense of breaking away that has made Reznor’s music of 2005 and beyond feel like a period that is predominately defined by transition. I don’t think Reznor has completely figured out where he wants to go from here, but there’s something commendable about an artist that is willing to hit the reset button so deep into a career. It’s a choice that comes with a lot of risk, but also a great deal of possibility, and if there’s anyone that has the ability to use that possibility to their advantage, it’s Reznor. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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