While I’m Still Here

Since 2005 Nine Inch Nails has been a discussion between two characters: the man who Trent Reznor feels he is deep inside, or who he once was, or very much wants to be; and the man who he became in the 1990s. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them True Trent and Demon Trent.

His work of the last decade is a patchwork of self-rediscovery. Gone are the meticulous soundscapes and concept albums (Year Zero aside), and with them departs the familiar “Trent Reznor” character, the protagonist of self-destructive operas like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. In their place we have a mix of baffled confessional and therapy, and outward-looking projects like Year Zero and Ghosts.

Though the latter are interesting, it’s in the former that the core Nine Inch Nails narrative — by which I mean Reznor’s endless introspection — continues. To that end, let’s narrow our focus to With Teeth and The Slip.

On these albums, generally True Trent assumes the role of narrator. In songs like “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” and “Echoplex” he deals with the boredom and creeping emptiness of a sober life. While he spent a decade in a bottle, his world had moved on and left him behind. Come 2005 he was out of the darkness, older on the outside. Inside, though, where there should have been years of growth and wisdom and personal experiences, there was just a fuzzy emotional void — the space where his demon had sat, and the open portal through which it could, at any time, return.

Notice here the use of pronouns. If in these songs there is a “you”, chances are that it refers to Demon Trent. At times the switch flips, and Demon Trent takes charge of “I”, with True Trent demoted to “you”. Depending on the song this interplay can be playful, or earnest, or frustrated, or defeated. The discussion is possibly at is most obvious in “Only”, itself a dry parody, or 2005 revamp, of “Down In It”:

I just made you up to hurt myself, yeah
And I just made you up to hurt myself
And it worked.
Yes it did!

There is no you
There is only me
There is no you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me

It is in this context that Hesitation Marks operates as an album. Take the character from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile (with his accordingly lavish soundscape), and filter him through the themes of With Teeth, and you have the basic story.

The album began as a pair of tracks — the initially-baffling “Everything”, and the hip-hop influenced “Satellite” — for a long-delayed “best of” record; according to Reznor, everything else grew out of that material. If you consider the basic discussion of modern-day Nine Inch Nails, that totally makes sense.

“Everything” is a cry of incautious, (as Reznor put it) arrogant victory. “I survived everything”, he sings in the verse. “Wave goodbye / wish me well / I’ve become something else”. But then the strange, dissonant chorus hits — and under all the noise we get a different story. “But this thing that lives inside of me / will surely rise and wake”.

This is the nature of addiction, especially over as long a period as Reznor suffered; it never leaves you, and in its absence one needs an exhausting, constant vigilance. Let down your guard for a moment, and you relapse, and you’re back where you started.

Indeed, after that show of arrogance, in the very next track Reznor switches characters:

satellite
I’m watching you
I’m one step ahead
satellite
I’m part of you
I’m inside your head

This interplay forms the basic story of the album. Years later, the man from those earlier albums returns. He makes an earnest effort to shed his demons and reclaim ownership over himself. For a while he seems to make progress. Yet what he fails to understand is that his demons will never, ever go away. He will never win, not entirely. If he chooses to fight, then the fight will be forever.

I’ve got to let it go
I’ve got to get straight
why’d you have to make it so hard
let me get away

One of the intriguing and frustrating elements is that it can be very difficult to tell who is speaking any given line. Some songs seem to be a call and response between the two Trents, while others are entirely one or the other. As part of this structure there is actually a little sympathy for Demon Trent. He’s just doing what he does, and doesn’t totally understand why True Trent is rejecting him.

There are some ups and downs. “All Time Low” seems to be about Demon Trent’s attempts to seduce Real Trent. “In Two” is about a drastic measure that Real Trent takes to cleanse himself. In the end it is unclear quite what happens. It appears that our man’s energy runs out, and he is unable to maintain the fight — though which man can we assume is speaking?

Only thing I’ve ever done
Closest I have ever come
Oh so tired on my own
Best days I have ever known

Apparently as he sings “the world” ends… and as it burns he continues to hang on, watching, reflecting.

well I don’t mind
I’m ok
wish it didn’t have to end this way

As the world roars and fades into oblivion, we hear someone honking playfully on a baritone sax. If the voice we’re listening to is True Trent, the sense that we get is, well, at least he tried. If this is goodbye, then it is a gentle one. He understands the situation and what he’s up against, and for all of his regrets he has accepted defeat. At least, for now.

Copy Of A

On first impression I really, really like Hesitation Marks. It’s about as sophisticated an album as Reznor has put out — musically, lyrically, structurally, thematically. He is maturing, yet this isn’t old man music. Whereas the new Van Halen album basically sounds like the band trying to recapture its old sound and vitality (using songs written some 35 years ago), this is the sound of a man with a history coming to terms with the present.

This is not an album that I could have known I wanted to hear. Whereas the singles felt stuck in a groove, on the full album the only hint of complacency comes in those nods to NIN’s past.

The lead single, “Came Back Haunted”, is the safest — possibly on purpose. Production aside, Thom Moyles compared the song to “The Perfect Drug” — one of Reznor’s glossiest and most disposable tracks, and also possibly the most raw example of his songwriting template. Similarly, “Came Back Haunted” is as generic a NIN anthem as I can imagine. It seems to deliver a precise focus tested example of an exciting new Nine Inch Nails song.

Of course there is probably more here than there seems. The title carries layers of meaning, from the public return of Nine Inch Nails to the broader theme of revisitation in a new context. To that end the ending vamp, its guitar motif distorted and borrowed from The Downward Spiral (thanks again to Mr. Moyles), is the album’s clearest reference to history (and perhaps old narrative threads).

Each in its own way, the singles all sound like they are trying to sound like Nine Inch Nails. “Haunted” is a lesser echo of the past. “Copy of A” sounds like exactly what I would expect from NIN in 2013. “Everything” is conspicuously anti-NIN. The whole reason it seems to exist is to play against expectation, which in turn leaves an echo of its opposite.

None of these songs is at all poor, and I quite liked the variety from one song to the next. On the basis of the singles I expected something familiar yet colorful. Yet by the same logic, on some level they all… kind of bored me.

To my relief, the rest of the album is a new thing — and a thing that really excites me. It has such energy and tension.

I keep liking different things. Tracks that swept under my radar suddenly become the best thing on the album. At some point over the last two days, each song has become one of my favorite ever NIN tracks.

More than the songs, the whole production feels… big. Momentous. Important. Here I am, I think. I’m listening to this when it’s new, before everyone in the world has analyzed it to death, before it becomes a landmark album. This is still the confusion phase, where people will wonder what this… is, and why Reznor chose to call it a Nine Inch Nails album. I find myself wondering what it was like to hear Pet Sounds in May 1966. It must have been more dramatic, but I imagine it was kind of like this.

Right now, I just think this is such an amazing album. With hindsight it all feels so obvious. Of course this is what he would release in 2013, and of course this is how you move forward as a person and an artist, while lugging 25 years of musical baggage. Somehow as Reznor gets older he only seems to get more vital and current — and his music only ever gets more truthful.

I’m not sure what my reaction says for longevity, as most things that stick with me take a while to dig under my skin. It could be that I’m just bowled over by the newness, and by my flaunted expectations. If nothing else, this album is full of great, fresh material.

Some observations:

The majority of the tracks are over five minutes long. Generally at around the three or four minute mark each seems to reach its natural conclusion. Then it… well, comes back haunted. HEY, it says. I’M STILL HERE. LET’S GO AROUND A FEW MORE TIMES. Around here I notice that I start to tune out. The next thing I know, I’m in the middle of a new song and I feel like I’ve missed something. I go back and I think, hey, this song is great too! Then the cycle repeats itself.

I don’t know if I’m just listening wrong. My life is busy these days, and it’s hard to give music my full attention. I need to focus to really wrap my head around the structure.

Also… man, if I didn’t know Reznor liked Bowie… I’d know it.

In recent interview Reznor keeps mentioning David Byrne; how Remain in Light changed his idea of what recorded music could be, and how he was modeling his new tour after Stop Making Sense. I hear it in here. This whole thing does have the energy and flow of that movie. In particular, “Running” could hardly be more Talking Heads.

Here’s a… thing. Try putting “While I’m Still Here” on a loop. See how that goes. Intentional? Who knows.

Eater of Dreams — is this meant to sound like medical support equipment? Or, perhaps, a satellite?

“All Time Low” is more like an all-time high. “Running” is also amazing, on a more subtle level.

That saxophone section to “While I’m Still Here” — did Reznor play that himself? I seem to remember he used to be a sax player.

Also, the remixes are splendid in a way we haven’t seen since… well, The Perfect Drug EP. But really, Further Down The Spiral.

An old way to vent a muse

(Reposted from Twitter, to clear up my feed a bit.)

The Fragile, love it as I do, was Reznor trying too hard. With Teeth is the response to that. There he deliberately lets go and runs with it. It’s exactly the opposite album. Interesting thing is, those are my two favorite of his albums. One despite its flaws, the other because of.

“The Day The World Went Away”… why is this on here? Why is it the lead single? Same for “Starfuckers, Inc.”. Disc 1 is full of nonsense. But then you get brilliance like “The Great Below”, “The Wretched”, and most of the instrumentals. Some of the best stuff he’s ever done.

It’s interesting that once Reznor chose not to kill himself trying he managed four albums in three years. As opposed to fifteen years. Granted I’m not hot on most of Year Zero and I still think The Slip is a collection of scraps. And the style is very samey over this period.

I kind of lump it all together as one era, with its ups and downs. Of that era, With Teeth is the lead attraction. The rest is extra. Doesn’t hurt that impression that the latter two albums each cost five bucks, and just appeared like magic within months of each other. And the second album was deliberately leaked in full (though in a different version) as part of its promotional ARG thing. So again, extra. The thing is, all of that stuff — it sounds like he had fun doing it. So even where it doesn’t do much for me, it’s hard to begrudge.

The only thing that gets me is this weird consensus that arose that The Slip is one of the best things he ever recorded. Which… it’s not. When it came out, I took it as a blog post of an album: unexpected, cheap, immediate. A new kind of a thing. A new way to vent a muse. I figured he’d release one of these every so often, when he had something to say. I thought that was sort of interesting. But as an album?

There’s also this weird thing of totally missing the self-effacing humor and confession of the more interesting songs on there. Like, “Discipline”? It’s using old NIN language as an ironic framework to say, “Actually, I admit my head isn’t working right. So now what?” It’s the most obvious thing in the world. I don’t think I’ve seen this acknowledged. Every review is all, “YEAH HE’S ALL RAUNCHY AGAIN!”

So I don’t really know what’s going on with the way people respond to that album. Then, I seem to be out of touch with most things.

(In response to some concerns about the quality of the last ten years — Hesitation Marks included — and the suggestion that The Fragile’s glow had dimmed over the years:)

What interests me about the 2005-2008 era is its unprecedented sincerity and intimacy, and how that aligns with Reznor’s story. Reznor almost died on the Fragile tour. He was a wreck. His life hit bottom. So he cleaned up and took a step back to look at himself. The music became therapeutic and took on the tone of a diary — the diary of a screwed-up person who was really trying to get better. So you get songs like “Every Day is Exactly the Same” and “Echoplex”, about that raw, numb sober emptiness. And the satire of “Only”. In place of theatrical rage and self-loathing (which had grown affected) the music becomes sad, playful, lost, brave, and earnest.

Mind you, despite the affected bits, The Fragile is still tied for my favorite of his albums. There’s just so much good in there. And The Downward Spiral is kind of beyond discussion or measure, really. It’s just one of the most important albums ever recorded. It is what it is.

The last decade is the era where he starts to care about things outside himself. He gets active politically. He gets married and has kids. And you can hear that expansiveness in the music. You can hear this rush of air as he unseals the vault and tries to breathe again. So that biographical element — it’s impossible for me to ignore, and with it in mind the music takes on more meaning than it might.

As for Hesitation Marks… yeah, I can hear where he is mentally, already. It seems just as sincere, but with more lavish attention. So although I don’t know how the whole thing will turn out, it’s already exciting me as another chapter in The Trent Reznor Story. It’s like Game of Thrones or The Wire or something. Each album is only part of the tale, and the sum is more than the parts. So far I’m getting the best of early and later NIN, for my tastes — the self-awareness, plus the ambition. But we’ll see, I guess!

(In response to comments about the lavish engineering on TDS and The Fragile, and its absence on the 2000s material:)

That’s all totally true, and I agree with it. The engineering in his 1990s stuff boggles the mind. I still always find new things. I’ll throw Broken in there as a prototype, as well. I’ve never heard anything else like his 1990s material, in that respect. By contrast, With Teeth is almost like a new version of PHM: stripped down, bare, almost primitive. A totally different approach. He recorded it mostly by himself on a laptop, and you can tell. The thing is, to me that suits the raw, confessional tone of it.

Rather than trying to dazzle with production, he’s trying to be honest with himself and making a real effort at straight composition. The results are often clumsy and stark — they sound more like demos than tracks off of a finished album. But that works in context. Where it gets a little old is that his next three albums have the exact same approach.

It was nice to see him experiment conceptually. Hey, concept album about politics and the end of the world. All-instrumental opus. And I guess if he’d spent all of his time layering and getting things perfect he wouldn’t have moved on and explored so much. But that sound really didn’t bear lasting for more than one album. After four albums I miss the old studio wizardry that defined NIN.

With Hesitation Marks, I’m getting a sense that this element is somewhat making its return. Layers, variety, confession, composition. I don’t know if I’m just projecting and hearing what I want to hear, and making of it what I want to make, but it feels… matured. Like the culmination of the things that he’s been doing well over the years — while still experimenting with bold, wacky nonsense.

The Only Time

I’ve gone over this before; the remastered Pretty Hate Machine is nice, if a little underwhelming after the special edition of The Downward Spiral. The lack of any special content aside from NIN’s cover of “Get Down Make Love” (previously available on the “Sin” single) is a little disappointing, but would be fine if the new mix were a clear improvement. The problem is that although its tracks are a little clearer than before, perhaps EQed a little better, the 2010 album comes from the twenty-first century school of mastering — which is to say, “louder is better“. Everything is compressed to the upper registers, so we lose all of the old dynamic range and the vocal tracks are now often overwhelmed by the backing.

This is unfortunate, and you’d think that Trent Reznor would know better, but it’s sort of a fact of modern studio engineering. Whatever. What I’m noticing, which I have noticed before but I’m noticing again now, is the peculiar effect of this new mastering — which is to say, the better tracks get noisy and hard to listen to, but the weaker tracks — some of them runners up for Trent Reznor’s worst ever — come out much improved. And the damnedest thing is that it’s hard for me to narrow down why.

“The Only Time” should by all reasonable extremes be the worst song on the album — except its misjudged weirdness elevates it beyond “That’s What I Get”. Now? I… kind of like it. It’s certainly easier on the ears than most of the album, and now its weirdness has a certain charm that it lacked. Again, I don’t know what’s different aside from the compressed dynamic range. It’s hard to do an A/B comparison. It’s still a stupid song, but it has become enjoyably dumb.

“That’s What I Get” will forever be Reznor’s most pointless album track, but again it lives a little more than before — as does “Ringfinger”, which to my ear will always be a limp reworking of his perhaps too-saucy-for-1989 “Twist”.

I have always thought that the mixes on Pretty Hate Machine were the most anemic of all known versions of those songs. The single mix of “Sin” is so much richer, so much better in every way — as are most of the early mixes of “Down In It”, “Sanctified”, and the joyously vague “Kinda I Want To”, which in a discussion with our Amandeep Jutla I once paraphrased as “I want to do something transgressive! And I feel ambivalent about that!” In order to make all of this material sit together and sound sufficiently gloomy, someone knocked off most of the individual edges.

This may in part explain why I’m not too bothered by the new master. The songs that it degrades mostly sound better elsewhere, and the songs that it improves have never sounded so good.

Also, the packaging.