If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with our new feature PRIMER, in which we guide you through the highs, lows, and occasional confusing bits of the careers of renowned indie icons.
When I bought The Fragile, it was only for the cover art. I was 16, I couldn’t afford music magazines or cable TV, and had a vague recollection of hearing that the lead singer put tits in his music videos. The album’s music was driven by both electronics and despair, topics I was very well acquainted with in my adolescence, and led me to revisit the record throughout my teenage years. After getting better acquainted with his back catalogue, Trent Reznor’s music became like that rare kind of friend that one can call once every three years and still find something in them that’s interesting.
And what’s interesting about Trent Reznor? He’s the very definition of an iconoclast; his albums construct complex narratives that trash religion, politics, love, and any other belief system, leaving an anguishing void that forms the fertile basis for his work. Angst-ridden white suburban teen, political firebrand, sexual deviant, and intellectual doomsayer: Trent Reznor used Nine Inch Nails to explore these different sides of his personality, then packaged them into industrial pop anthems that could easily be played on Top 40 radio while still sounding like something The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would use to pump themselves up before tearing our world apart. Unlike former protégée Marilyn Manson and his goth-rock cohorts, as a frontman Reznor’s priority wasn’t to startle middle-America; he didn’t record The Downward Spiral at the site of the Manson Family murders for shock value. He is an artist and an individual first, and his ideas and themes were naturally challenging for the average middle American he was surrounded by and so resented as a child.
Of course, he was a rock star as well, and inspired a fever-dream dedication amongst gothy mallrats that would rival any teen pop act. Here’s some much-need levity (hint: he threw his microphone into the crowd)
Maybe this is what set him on the course for rehab.
In no particular order, here are my favorite tracks from his stand-out albums:
Pretty Hate Machine, 1989
Despite being the very picture of a pop song, samples like the shuffling foundry chains in place of a hi-hat is what helped get Reznor’s music labeled as “industrial.” On the plus side, it introduces the modern-rock listening world to Reznor’s fascination with abandonment and his burgeoning nihilism. Failed by everything he’s been told will guide him, he muses “Can this world really be as sad as it seems?” before desperately screaming “I want so much to believe” to the unsympathetic microphone.
“Something I Can Never Have”
Reznor’s lyrics are saddled, never dripping, with regret and longing, and while some confuse that with melodrama, it’s hard to imagine any other words being attached to this melody, the very definition of a haunting, lingering song. It echoes with crashes like bodies being tossed from buildings while the piano sketches out his desire for someone, or something, long gone. When he sighs “I just want something I can never have,” he isn’t necessarily resigned to his fate, he’s sure as hell angry about it. Which brings us to…
“Happiness in Slavery” (NSFW)
Gone are the immediately identifiable influences of Depeche Mode and New Order, casting off synth-pop in favor of diamond-cutting, subterranean metal and strong political undertones. Sure, the video is a gory, over-the-top piece of BDSM label-bating, but when he hisses “Don’t open your eyes you won’t like what you see…I have found you can find happiness in slavery,” he’s probably not talking about being tied up and whipped. At least not for any sexual gratification.
The Downward Spiral (1994)
Fun fact: “Closer” is the second best song about sex on The Downward Spiral. That distinction goes to “Reptile,” a much more complex and desperate song. Instead of the club-friendly synths and pulsing boom-bap that are the centerpieces of “Closer”, a grinding mechanic whirr with pounding, nigh indecipherable guitars are front and centre in “Reptile.” It’s a fascinating missive in which Reznor appears dumbstruck by just how depraved he can get.
I didn’t want to choose this song. For purely selfish reasons, of course (I just really like “Ruiner.”) But though most people know that one of Johnny Cash’s most popular songs was originally written and recorded by Trent Reznor, it bears repeating, because it’s a testament to the man’s popular songwriting prowess. Behind the various labels and whatever image he’s created and the countless that others project, there lies a prodigious talent.
The Fragile (1997)
“We’re In This Together”
This entire album is notorious for being bloated, with most of the material verging on self-parody, but some of it escapes from the wake of Reznor’s heroin-induced tailspin, including “We’re In This Together.” It’s hopeful lyrics make it something of a rarity in Reznor’s oeuvre, but it’s more than just a novelty: it has the same dank guitar lines that helped make The Downward Spiral such a classic, and ups the ambition with a blistering guitar solo and tasteful turntablism.
“The Great Below”
Just so we’re clear, Reznor’s more than a remarkable musician, he also has an incredible voice, suited perfectly for his lyrics and instrumentation. And on songs like “The Great Below” when it’s fully on display, even for a short time, it’s enough for you to recognize. The heat-warped strings and piano add further turmoil to the strong suicidal undertones of the song’s protagonist, making the beauty of the music profoundly unsettling. Reznor’s never lacked for ambition, and though some would argue that The Fragile was plagued by his need to always be better, there are moments when it shines through. Like this one.
The Slip (2008)
This song comes at the tail end of some of Reznor’s more political (and my least favorite) work, but still preserves his disdain for what he saw as the proto-fascism of the Bush Administration, or any other militant government. But enough of that shit: it’s the soundtrack for trains that are about to derail, or for escaping a building that’s seconds away from demolition. It’s a relentless, balls-to-the-wall hard rock song. One of the most remarkable Nine Inch Nails songs, and one of the last ones Reznor ever wrote.
Now world-renowned for his soundtracks, the first one Reznor ever wrote was for id software’s “Quake,” a groundbreaking first person shooter perfectly suited for his grim, bleak compositions. Listen to the above track, and tell me it’s not perfect for a murder simulator.