My introduction to Nine Inch Nails came at the behest of my best friends and roommates, avid NIN fans and not the skin-heads that everything I had ever heard about NIN had lead me to believe was their sole cohort. The band’s industrial/scary/hard reputation and my perception of the composition of its fans added to my general resistance to listening to any music that I hadn’t discovered on my own and thoroughly vetted. I scoffed, avoided, and procrastinated listening to their music until my curiosity overwhelmed me.
When I finally acquiesced I became a NIN junky, listening to nothing but Reznor’s frantic moans over heavy beats for two weeks straight. I felt like he and I had a personal conspiracy against the world. I would come straight from listening to his sexually charged rants about addiction and anarchy to going into reserved meetings with my professors. We’d talk about going to graduate school while I secretly jammed to mantras in my head like “I want to fuck you like an animal” and “I’d rather die than give you control.”
When I finally emerged from my NIN craze, I thanked my friends profusely. They were somewhat relieved because they had heard my binges occasionally and while they were supportive they also knew from personal experience how intense unrelenting NIN could become. I moved on to other new music as I always do. But I never gave up my internal pledge to Reznor’s music. When I heard NIN was headlining Lollapalooza I immediately bought tickets.
Rolling Stone ranks NIN in the top 20 of bands that give the best live performances, and for good reason. Reznor’s angry prance makes me suspect that he stole the energy of 4 twenty year olds and crammed them into a nearly 50 year old body.
That night they drew extensively on the new material from their (at that time) upcoming album Hesitation Marks. After hearing “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” at that live show, I had been grinding my teeth in anticipation of the new album, which finally dropped on August 30th.
Hesitation Marks was just the kind of gateway drug I needed to re-obsess me with NIN. Reznor makes the classic mainstream move of putting the singles first on the album (after a typical nothing intro track), but unlike some “classic” 90’s bands (cough, Sum 41) this isn’t a mistake because Hesitation Marks punches out hits just as deftly as NIN’s best early albums. Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral, With Teeth, and Year Zero, all incredible albums that insidiously slipped their songs into endless airplay.
Hesitation Marks seems equipped to do the same, not that I listen to the radio anymore. When I saw “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” live the band seemed like they had become a band of brainwashed zombies, gyrating to the strobe lights and insistent bass. On the album, they lose none of their ghostly spirit, and also become infused with an oddly youthful vibe, perhaps because Reznor’s voice is so driving in its repetition and the lyrics imply revival.
The album breaks the energy immediately afterward with “Find My Way” a down-tempo song in the vein of “Right Where it Belongs”, only to slowly revive again with “All-Time Low”, build steam with “Disappointed”, and blast out with “Everything”. A second arc comes with the build from the space-trip “Satellite” to the guitar driven jam “In Two”. In this way, the album itself dies and revives.
Pundits all over the youtube and music review-verse have said that Reznor loses his edge with Hesitation Marks, divorces himself from industrial, dons a pink tutu, and becomes a full-fledged pop band. Though I definitely commiserate with that perspective having been one of the privileged who was able to see the “Everything”/My Little Pony music video before EMI took it down (God I hope I can see it again one day), it overlooks the important fact that NIN have always been a pop-industrial band, and that’s what makes them so compelling. I always got turned off from straight industrial bands because nothing was catchy enough to make up for the noise.
With NIN the noise and the catchy-factor always danced in tandem—even the considerably more violent Pretty Hate Machine played alongside the uber-catchy Nirvana in the nineties.
NIN has undoubtedly changed its sound. But it is a revival of the best parts of NIN, an expunging of the disappointing and aptly named The Slip, and a return to the always-addictive sound of its early years. NIN has literally come back haunted—haunted with the fervor of its inception.
Ben Dorfman — formerly known as Mr. Stitcher, Northwestern University’s premier male fashion blogger–was born in Berkeley, CA., but still managed to escape the sixties with only a slight “grass” addiction. He once made a music video about pirates in under three days and wrote a song about lozenges. He also used to run a twitter consisting of only puns, but luckily no one will ever find out about that other than his grandma, his father, and his cat, two of which enjoy puns, two of which enjoy randomly poking at a keyboard and acting like they know what they are doing, and one of which needs to be belly rubbed before nap-time. ( Answers: grandma+dad, grandma+cat, grandma).