As the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations recently reminded us, Nine Inch Nails debuted in 1989, dropping Pretty Hate Machine on Oct. 20, just days before Halloween and right at the tail end of a decade they’re not always associated with.
While Trent Reznor’s one-man industro-pop project found its audience in the alt-rock ‘90s, the music derives from ‘80s industrial forerunners like Skinny Puppy and Ministry, not to mention synth-pop acts like Depeche Mode and the Human League. There are also elements of the mainstream rock Reznor absorbed in rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, where he grew up playing piano and sax and dreaming of a way out.
Trent eventually gravitated to the bright lights of Cleveland, where he landed a job as a janitor and assistant engineer at Right Track studio. When he wasn’t scrubbing away at the toilets, Reznor availed himself of the equipment and honed the programming, sampling, and recording skills he’d need to assemble Pretty Hate Machine.
Compared to NIN’s later works, the album has a rickety homemade charm. While Reznor traveled to London, New York City, and Boston and worked with some of his favorite producers to expand on the demos he’d made on his Mac, these 10 tracks sound like what they are: the best shots of a brooding amateur learning to swipe drum sounds from preexisting pop songs and fit them with the catchy riffs and melodies pouring out of his head.
“That whole first album was me in the studio, just messing around,” Reznor told Danny Scott of Future Music in a 2005 interview. “Trying to find an identity. Trying to find out how I wanted to sound.”
He found an identity, all right. Unlike his far harsher idols in Skinny Puppy and Ministry, who took on global issues and used snatches of incongruous dialogue to keep listeners disoriented and at a distance, Trent ripped open his heart and mind and let the blackness ooze out. Honest to the point of being uncomfortable, Pretty Hate Machine is about heartbreak, loneliness, abandonment, anger, and guilty desires. “The devil wants to f— me in the back of his car,” Reznor sings on “The Only Time” — and that’s the love song.
And yet for all the bleakness and rage, Pretty Hate Machine is a hell of a pop record. (The album hit No. 75 on the Billboard 200 and has since gone triple platinum.) It’s also an invitation into a world Reznor would further flesh out on The Downward Spiral (1994) and The Fragile, landmark albums that reached No. 2 and No. 1 on the Billboard 200, respectively. These days, Reznor is a happily married father of two with a Golden Globe and an Oscar (both for scoring David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network) and possibly a Rock Hall trophy on its way. He’s gone respectable, but he’ll still plug in the Hate Machine live, hitting fans with ‘80s favorites like “Sanctified,” “Terrible Lie,” and of course, “Head Like a Hole.”
Read on to get our track-by-track take on the imperfect masterwork that first hammered NIN into the hearts of millions.
“Head Like a Hole”: It’s like Bob Dylan said, albeit much more delicately: “You’ve gotta serve somebody.” Trent’s taunting chorus — “You’re going to get what you deserve” — could be aimed at moneygrubbers, submissive lovers, drug addicts, or all of the above. Slaves of all types are welcome at this dance party, where everyone bows down before the lashing beat and synth line.
“Terrible Lie”: After the raw charge of “Head Like a Hole,” Reznor lets the music blip and breathe, even as he feels the walls closing in. “I’m all alone in a world you must despise,” he sings, putting God on blast for creating a planet where such profound misery is possible. He’s like the biblical character of Job, only there’s no chance of him backpedaling in the end.
“Down In It”: Credit Trent with one of the hardest-hitting hip-hop tracks of ’89. His is a new style, introverted gangsta, complete with pinched, nasally flow and a beat sick enough to warrant HAZMAT suits. “Down In It” is about going from feeling really good to really bad really fast.
“Sanctified”: Those opening synth swells suggest Gregorian temple, but then Satan starts slapping and popping the bass, doing his version of the Seinfeld theme, and it’s clear where this is one headed. Down in the underworld, Trent’s being lead around on a leash by some devilish “she” who abuses him as she promises salvation. Sounds like his kind of woman.
“Something I Can Never Have”: The first of Reznor’s great ballads contains one of his most famous lines: “I’m starting to scare myself.” The repetitive, almost absentminded piano figure is the sort of thing an emotionally devastated guy might play while staring dead-eyed at a picture of the person who left him in that state. Trent fills some of the empty space with harsh buzzing and whining, the cling-clang of his pretty self-hate machine.
“Kinda I Want To”: One thing Trent isn’t known for is being wishy-washy. Though far from filler, this sheepish expression of desire is among the disc’s weaker tracks. Even so, the constantly changing beat matches the narrator’s indecisiveness, and the drilling synth riff keeps the pressure right up through the end.
“Sin”: Trent rhymes “kiss” with “fist,” so whatever relationship inspired this one must’ve ended in particularly nasty fashion. Instead of pining, he pumps up the drums and bass and delivers a dance-floor melter for those clubs where people writhe in cages. Actually, it must have worked in regular-folks establishments, too — “Sin” hit No. 10 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
“That’s What I Get”: In a 1994 Guitar World interview, Reznor described “Kinda I Want To” and this medium-hot rager as songs that “took an unbelievable amount of work” and yielded unsatisfactory results. As with “Kinda,” the beat is the most memorable thing here — particularly the way Trent downplays the rhythm in the early goings before building to a thudding finale.
“The Only Time”: Here’s the closest Reznor comes to matching Prince — in many ways, his brother from another mother — in the lover-man-jam department. “The Only Time” is a sweaty, sexy beast. The funk bass and spare beats of the verses are foreplay, and then the chorus arrives with a piston-like drive. It’s baby-making music for messed-up citizens of future dystopias.
“Ringfinger”: These days, Trent is a happily married man; at 24, he saw matrimony as something less than holy. “You just left me nailed here / hanging like Jesus on the cross,” he sings, equating love with suffering, much as he’s done throughout Pretty Hate Machine. Still, there’s a honeymoon — the glorious two-minute finale, wherein Reznor mixes up turntable scratches, scuzzball guitar licks, and what sounds like a sample of a car slamming on its breaks. Maybe it’s the groom en route to the church, having a change of heart.