When Trent Reznor sings “you,” in most cases he’s talking to the other part of himself—call him, Mr. Self Destruct. After Reznor’s own downward spiral that bottomed with a near-death experience on his Fragile tour, his 2005 album With Teeth is largely about recovery. 2013’s Hesitation Marks is about that battle’s return after an age, his musical avatar’s id reasserting itself and the struggle for control resuming with a little more self-awareness this time around.
With Teeth in particular is to me one of Reznor’s most fascinating albums. The whole thing exists in this dazed, sober limbo where Reznor seems to gaze around him, notice how much time has passed, and wonder exactly how he might function as a real person after he’s missed so much along the way.
As fatuous as “Only” may be—the subsumed comedy to so many NIN songs a right up front this time—it’s also weirdly affirming as a recovery anthem. The music holds this uneven smirk while Reznor asserts that, no, that person doesn’t exist; it’s only him now. It almost needs to be as silly as it is, to undercut the drama of the old persona that he means to peel away. “No,” the song says. “You don’t get control here. I’m allowed to mock you.”
The chunky 2/4 backing serves as a loopy funhouse mirror of “Closer.” The lyrics quote “Down In It,” then twist the lyric into a reflection on his behaviors that led him to this point. Musically, Reznor seems to be taking a step back and going, “Yeah, that… that whole era of my life was pretty absurd, huh. Christ, that wasn’t me; that was never even a real person. I can’t let that affect me anymore. Well, I’m here now. It’s okay. I’m fine. I guess.”
You take Reznor’s (character’s) sort of ongoing dialogue with the other unwanted aspect of himself, and pair it with his curiously persistent themes of transformation or becoming—when I say that NIN often feels really super transy to me, this is what I mean. It’s a starting point, anyway.
That concept to “Only” sort of comes back eight years later in “Everything.” This time, though, there’s a dark undertone. The assertion here—I survived everything—it’s less triumphant than it sounds. There’s a shade of denial; of pushing down that unwanted persona away as it threatens to bubble back to control—pretending it’s gone while it sits, waits.
You never really recover from mental illness or addiction, right. That’s not how it works. You just learn how to cope and manage better. The scars will always be a part of you, lurking as part of your base code. Being so incautious as to say, ha ha, I’m better now; it’s fine—you’re setting yourself up for problems.
There’s this interesting sequence to Reznor’s albums. His big opus that he’ll never live down is of course 1994’s The Downward Spiral. And that’s both the anchor and the weight that affects everything in its wake. That album has at least three direct sequels: first comes 1990’s The Fragile, then With Teeth and Hesitation Marks—each replacing the previous one and telling a slightly different story. The “Downward Spiral” theme from throughout that album keeps reemerging in odd, distorted forms as Reznor tries to escape its shadow—the seeming implication in Hesitation Marks being, for all his growth and change, he will never escape either that legacy or the damage that its story represents. There’s a part of him that will always be Mr. Self Destruct.
That push for recovery, it starts as early as “The Fragile”—weakly, helplessly, almost as a plea, as the album traces its own roller coaster of emotion. “We’re In This Together” strikes me as a particularly curious read, when you take what I say about Reznor and “you.”
Once you accept that most of Reznor’s music is about his own mental health struggles, in particular his relationship with his self—and then once you notice how very transy how much of his music feels, one gets some kind of a vibe from lyrics like “You’re the queen and i’m the king/Nothing else means anything.”
None of this of course is to impose any particular reading on Reznor himself as a person. Whatever his deal is, it’s his own deal. I’m not his therapist; I’m not in his head (thank God). I have no interest in projecting anything on a real person. I’m just noticing the way that his art hangs together, and how well it lends itself to reflect a certain set of ideas that… I guess always made an unspoken sense to me.