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I'll Do Anything For You: Pretty Hate Machine By NIN Revisited
Ned Raggett , October 14th, 2014 09:46

Bow down before the one you serve. Ned Raggett is going to give you what you deserve: a well-reasoned reappraisal of Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut

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Tori Amos has been touring a lot this year and doing something a number of artists have been doing in recent years - Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and the Arcade Fire come to mind - where they've been performing a cover song associated with the city or country they're performing at any given time. It's a nice way to break things up and given how utterly pointless the idea of total genre purity continues to be, it can give the artist a chance to showcase something outside the usual expectations of an audience, even if the results can be better in spirit than execution.

So at her Cleveland stop this past summer, she covered a song from the debut album of a performer who had first made his name there in the 1980s, though he was from one state over in Pennsylvania. Said performer had appeared with backing vocals on her own second album Under The Pink and she's covered 'Hurt' live in the past, so it wasn't totally a surprise. Yet she had never done this song before to anyone's knowledge, and the result, at 3:46 in in this particular clip, was harrowing and a half:

'Something I Can Never Have' exists as the poison ballad of sorts at the heart of Nine Inch Nails's debut Pretty Hate Machine. It is a song that made more than a few friends of mine who similarly got into the album soon after its release confess to me it brought them to tears. It is a bit of tangled desperation and sorrow and anger, utterly self-centered and yet all the more of a pound in the head and the heart as a result. More than anything it might have been the song that made a few of us guess Trent Reznor was in it for the long haul, though I can't say anybody would have even guessed how long that would turn out to be in the end. Looking back twenty five years, before even bigger albums, Oscars and Grammys and number one debuts and Coil remixes and Lindsey Buckingham guest appearances, and trying to remember exactly what one thought or might have projected forward is a bit of a mug's game in the end. But the proof really was in the pudding, from the get-go.

Talking about Pretty Hate Machine to any extent means I should start by directing you to Daphne Carr's book on the album from the 33 ⅓ series, and in fact just stop here and go read that anyway if you haven't yet. I'll wait. It delves into things I only half knew or heard about, his upbringing, where he's from in those Ohio/Pennsylvania borderlands, his being shaped by classic rock and then synth-pop and industrial's interpretations in those areas as well as from afar, whether afar was London or Chicago or somewhere else instead. In a DVD documentary that came out a few years ago, I appeared along with a slew of others as various critical talking heads, and in discussing Pretty Hate Machine I said something which was equally seen from the get-go: it was Depeche Mode meets Ministry, right down the middle, and specifically the version of Ministry that Al Jourgensen had reworked by the late eighties, a sprawling and overdriven metal-riff explosion. That's the simple take and that's how nearly every one of us heard the album if we did hear it soon after release. Oh right this is on Wax Trax! … oh wait it's on TVT? … sure looks like something on Wax Trax! … sure SOUNDS like something on Wax Trax! ...

None of which is to denigrate the album. If anything it's one of those perfectly formed debuts, honed by Reznor's previous woodshedding with friend/fellow musician Chris Vrenna, sympathetic producers and engineers (not everyone got to have John Fryer, Flood, Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood on their formal bow), and a clear monomaniacal vision in the best sense, with Reznor playing everything on it aside from a guitar part by future touring guitarist Richard Patrick. It's precocious, for lack of a better word, even if Reznor was 24 and not, say, 14.  Or 20, which is when the other key role model for what Reznor was up to recorded his own debut release.  There's a reason why Prince was thanked in the liner notes as an inspiration.

And it's not just because of being a putative role model in studio, one of many. Like Ministry, even though they slathered things in a lot of feedback and grime at this stage of the eighties, like Depeche Mode, who generally preferred a cleaner clatter and stomp, and definitely like Prince at his absolutely focused best, Reznor never, ever ignored a hook that got in and dug deep. Further, he used the tools to hand, and if Pretty Hate Machine is the work of someone assembling all the pieces together and nodding to all the role models that could exist then - I can also hear Gary Numan, Skinny Puppy, Kraftwerk, Public Enemy, lots more besides - it's all tied up with the kind of tech and especially the kind of electronic beats, punching, pummelling, pulsing, that one could want. You can almost hear him at once trying to move beyond what they have to offer but still just a bit constrained by formalism at this point, just a hair. The chopped up mayhem of Broken showed what happened when he did push a little further but that was still three years and a lot of frustration to come.

If it was all hook in rhythm, then we might only know of Reznor as a producer and songwriter; if he had decided to go that route, he might not necessarily have been a natural rival to Max Martin at this point but that could have happened more than you might think. But he knew his melodies well enough to know how to sing them well too - and if it's the spiteful performance of a frustrated young man and audibly so at plenty of points, well, again, twenty four years old, and I remember that equivalent time for me well enough, though when I first heard Pretty Hate Machine that was still some years off in my own timeline. Sure, it may be the frustration of emotions rather than, say, societal and structural imbalance, however much 'Head Like A Hole' nods to that, but some things are a touch more immediate at that age. Wedding that feeling throughout the album to singalong hooks and great rhythms was the trick, not necessarily a new one but he made the package deeply attractive. They weren't love songs but they weren't always hate songs either per se - they were just really, really angry and you could sing them, loudly and angrily in turn.

Sometimes you have to hear the moments in between his lyrics, like the skeletal breakdown after the first chorus and before the second verse on 'That's What I Get', one of many points that suddenly stand out on a relisten for me. (The break's a beauty as well, one of the more overtly Depeche moments yet still a little more stressed out and churning.) Sometimes that one-word-parody of his vocal approach a friend of mine identified way back when - a pinched, strained "YEWWWWWW!" - can apply. But there were three singles from the album for a reason in the end, each of them tightly wound and to the point, and nearly everything else on the album wasn't far behind. For example, 'Ringfinger' is practically chirpy in the end, even with the Jane's Addiction sample and the bit about severed fingers; the arrangement is almost debut album Depeche itself, though the ending gets harsher and more engagingly funked out at the same time.

Because the album is such a fully formed debut, it has almost been inescapable for Reznor. The Downward Spiral may have been the total breakout, The Fragile the fractured experiment, Year Zero the concept album/project in toto and so forth, but it all seems to come back to Pretty Hate Machine as that first flashpoint. Even if 'Down In It', the actual first single by NIN - the first Halo, to quote the catalog number scheme that has marked every key Reznor release since, his own personal Factory Records life-as-art-as-list move - didn't end up casting as long a shadow as 'Head Like A Hole', it's a crisp debut. Sherwood's production shows through on here, the artificial caverns of sound that On-U made its stock in trade, but Reznor's demi-spoken word/sort-of hip hop flow, the kind of thing a lot of artists ended up doing the following decade, adds a kind of purring intensity all its own. When he suddenly punches up with "I was UP ABOVE IT!" followed by a double echo of what could be a crowd sample or just a smashing noise, he puts his stamp on things much more clearly than before, the song's easy going lope just a little destabilized by the star power in front.

The final single, 'Sin', is more of a naughty-by-numbers move, hinting at fistfucking, transgressions, the kind of thing that really underlines his nods to Depeche Mode and Martin Gore's own obsession with ruination spelled out more concretely. It'd be wrong not to acknowledge the shadow of Nivek Ogre more fully at this point, though - if there's a lot of screeching intensity from Al Jourgensen's work, in Ministry and in other projects alike, that translates through Pretty Hate Machine, there's also Ogre's own darkly glamourous star power at work. That may seem counterintuitive given Skinny Puppy's increasing focus on societal and environmental degradation and destruction, the Grand Guignol they evoked on stage usually leaving Ogre and most everything around him covered in fake blood while images of brutal terror played out behind him. But that compelling theater was as much key to Skinny Puppy's work as the increasingly fraught arrangements and experiments of their music; the relative focus and easy access of Reznor's work, more directed at personal angst first over the larger political possibilities, made his own equivalent stage melodrama an easier pill to swallow - not that he wouldn't find his own way ramp things up with later videos like 'Happiness In Slavery'.

Other album cuts lingered long in Reznor's universe, directly or by example. 'Terrible Lie' remained an anchor point for his stage shows through the mid-1990s, its cold, slow descending synth orchestrations a glowering crush that sounded like it was taking out Reznor no matter how hard or loud he screamed the chorus. The pinpoint precise cuts between percussive punches, protoglitch feedback and a snarling chorus guitar part during 'Sanctified', meanwhile, gave a sense of how carefully he wanted something to have an exact, maniacally focused impact upon listening, for the first time or for the fiftieth. 'Kinda I Want To' and 'The Only Time', speaking personally, settle more into time-killing perhaps, but as more extensions of the aesthetic it's hard to argue against them, and sometimes it's all about the moments, like when everything cuts away on 'The Only Time' to big drums, one key melody and Reznor's own singing, reducing it all down as much as possible while still keeping the core of the song going. Again, he never ignores the hook.

And he certainly didn't on the opening number, the second single and the one that really kicked it in for NIN from that point forward. 'Head Like A Hole', to return to it in full, is almost like 'Blitzkrieg Bop' on the first Ramones album - it's so "Oh, okay, here it is, GOT it" perfect, a summary of exactly what being aimed for, hooks, beats, personalized obsessive I/you focus in larger frameworks, guitars, shoutalongs, anger, rhymes, that honestly sometimes the rest of Pretty Hate Machine could be an afterthought. Frontloading any full album can have its risks, frontloading a debut with that? It's almost a sign of perfect confidence, maybe even overconfidence. But talk about coming out swinging and not stopping, the way the minimal chirp and clatter suddenly takes in bigger and bigger percussive stomps, the little 'whoop whoop' snippets and the rising guitar lines, then snap that snaky little bassline riding over it all, so by the time Reznor kicks in with "God money I'll do anything for you" he's got you hooked. It's a stellar example of pop construction and he just ramps it and ramps it to the chorus, rages through it, then eases back away from it into the next verse.  Clever bastard - and within a couple of years thousands of people would be roaring along with it night after night when he was on the first Lollapalooza tour.

Yet again, though, 'Something I Can Never Have'. The joker in the pack in the end, the song where everything else on the album strips away more than once, leaving just a gentle, sad piano part echoing off into the infinite. It's way less something between Front 242's 'Headhunter' and Nitzer Ebb's 'Join In The Chant' on a dance floor set, more something that was a kissing cousin to This Mortal Coil or something similar on 4AD, drowned in shadow and sorrow, Reznor's lyric and performance spiked with anger, fraught with anguish. There are huge stomps on the chorus but even they are buried back too, an echoing clatter around an arena while the spotlight is on the guy and the keyboard in the center of it. That one probably ended up on more mixtapes than people are willing to admit, and maybe Tori had it on one of hers for a while. It could explain her choice of it for the performance, maybe there were other reasons. But it was a good choice of a song to cover, from a great album, a statement of purpose that would lead to much more.

Carpathian
Oct 14, 2014 12:16pm

Very worthy of a feature - one of those albums people of a certain age will keep discovering. For an album so skeletal there's a surprising amount to keep coming back to.

Personally, as much as I do still listen to this, my 'go to' for the earlier end of NIN is still Fixed. That may be as much the gloriously explosion aided by Thirwell, Hyde, Vig, Vrenna, Coil et al. An article on that would be great, please & thank you.

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feedthecollapse
Oct 14, 2014 2:16pm

I think I've always found this album cheesy and very dated, even when I first bought it as a 13 year old in 1996 or so. I tried relistening to it recently and I just couldn't get through the whole thing; hell, I'm not even sure I've ever listened to Something I Can Never Have all the way through.

I know this album had its place at the time, but I'm continually surprised how often it's championed considering its peers at the time have held up much better and Trent himself has releases at least 3 or 4 albums that are easily better than it.

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Ned Raggett
Oct 14, 2014 3:37pm

In reply to feedthecollapse:

A perfectly fair take, but this isn't the 25th anniversary of those other releases!

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quinn
Oct 14, 2014 5:50pm

agree with feedthecollapse

Never really got much from this album, though I did buy it after TDS, Broken, Fixed era, so I guess it was always going to feel a bit weak compared to those beasts. I remember at this time being very much into Sisters of Mercy and just passing off Pretty Hate Machine as a seriously weak (as in piss weak) version of the Eldritch Factor.

Anyway blah blah, I always thought Something I Can Never Have as a great track, the best off the album. Though I would need to double check I thought the version on Natural Born Killers was fucking awesome and miles better.

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Stephanie
Oct 14, 2014 9:08pm

I remember buying this record probably not soon after the release. I played this album to death, it turned me into a massive Trent Reznor fan at the time. I bought everything of his, the remixes ( I remember the Sin 12” being really excellent with the b side of Get, Down, Make Love a stand out Queen cover), his contribution to the 1000 Homo Dj’s song “Supernaut” (although I think that’s debated) and I even went to see Pigface with the hope of seeing Reznor on stage (ok ok I was an Ogre & Jourgensen fan too). I think for a good year that was the only music coming out of my stereo. Really nice article and absolutely agree about Pretty Hate Machine being somewhere between Skinny Puppy and Depeche Mode, which at the time was right in my wheelhouse (as I loved both of them).

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Sciflyer
Oct 15, 2014 1:45am

Nice writeup and a fun trip down memory lane! I still have very fond memories of hearing this album for the first time. I was a massive Depeche Mode fan when this was released, and was also listening to Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Ministry quite a bit. I know that I am in the minority here as Trent really beefed up his sound on the follow up, but I really loved the more synth-oriented, melodic moments of Pretty Hate Machine. Even though he went on to make some great albums, in my opinion, he never really approached the synthetic perfection he achieved with this one. I will say though that I have thoroughly enjoyed his most recent NIN outing, as he seems (to my ears) to rely less on the ham-fisted-metal-guitars-turned-up-to-11, and really brings the synths into the foreground.

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Oct 15, 2014 8:48am

Ever play something I can never have back to back with swans' "in my garden" off children of God? How about head like a hole back to back with swans' this is mine? Yes even he admitted to down in it ripping puppy's dig it, but can the world be as sad as it seems? This album is the post industrial led Zeppelin I and I don't know about you but I go to the originals every time..

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Oct 15, 2014 8:49am

Ever play something I can never have back to back with swans' "in my garden" off children of God? How about head like a hole back to back with swans' this is mine? Yes even he admitted to down in it ripping puppy's dig it, but can the world be as sad as it seems? This album is the post industrial led Zeppelin I and I don't know about you but I go to the originals every time..

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Carpathian
Oct 15, 2014 11:52am

A list including Arvo Pärt, *that* Walker Brothers album, Portishead and Steve Reich is a list where I want to check out the others. The "Baker's Dozen" strand delivers yet again.

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Carpathian
Oct 15, 2014 11:55am

In reply to Carpathian:

Bizarrely my comment above was posted on the Baker's dozen article but appears here? Move on, nothing to see.

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Ned Raggett
Oct 15, 2014 3:30pm

In reply to :

All fine albums. If you missed that I pretty much said the album is a fusion of things from all over the place, you might want to go back and reread it? Sorry, but complaining that the album is unoriginal -- when it is rather OBVIOUSLY 'unoriginal,' it is exactly the fusion of sounds and approaches it is -- is a bit like saying the sky is blue.

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Christopher Owens
Oct 15, 2014 3:38pm

This album thoroughly impressed me as a 19 year old who had bought the 10th anniversary edition of The Downward Spiral, although I noticed that he had a bad habit of undoing his music with such stupid lyrics: "the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car."

Once I discovered Killing Joke and Ministry, I dismissed NiN for years. Recently, I took a notion to go back to PHM and it still stands up for me. I just don't sing along in public...

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ChipRock
Oct 15, 2014 4:14pm

Good article. I can never quite work out Pretty Hate Machine - it's a weird one. As you rightly say, the writing and arrangement are - for the most part - absolutely spot on. Of course the production is good too, but I think the fact that different people all worked on different tracks does make it feel slightly disjointed. I wish he'd done more with Jourgensen though - Get Down, Make Love sounds awesome still.
So anyway, for me it's only a half brilliant album. I've never grown bored with Head Like A Hole no matter how many times I hear it. The recent live update of Sanctified shows what a great tune that was, and I absolutely loved the '94 live version of The Only Time. I know the whole doing a whole album in full live thing is a little dull (although I wish I'd seen it when NIN did The Downward Spiral in full) but I'd love to hear a complete update version of Pretty Hate Machine. But yes, good to hear some appreciation of Trent's work. It would be great to read more of later albums, should the occasion arise. Cheers!

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ChipRock
Oct 15, 2014 4:15pm

Good article. I can never quite work out Pretty Hate Machine - it's a weird one. As you rightly say, the writing and arrangement are - for the most part - absolutely spot on. Of course the production is good too, but I think the fact that different people all worked on different tracks does make it feel slightly disjointed. I wish he'd done more with Jourgensen though - Get Down, Make Love sounds awesome still.
So anyway, for me it's only a half brilliant album. I've never grown bored with Head Like A Hole no matter how many times I hear it. The recent live update of Sanctified shows what a great tune that was, and I absolutely loved the '94 live version of The Only Time. I know the whole doing a whole album in full live thing is a little dull (although I wish I'd seen it when NIN did The Downward Spiral in full) but I'd love to hear a complete update version of Pretty Hate Machine. But yes, good to hear some appreciation of Trent's work. It would be great to read more of later albums, should the occasion arise. Cheers!

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adam
Oct 15, 2014 7:12pm

Great write-up, an album I keep coming back to. It is also one that fully deserved the remaster/reissue a few years back - the remastering on that is astounding and gives the whole album a new lease of life. In particular 'Sanctified' has stuff in the mix I'd never even heard on the original release.

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Rolando Hödar
Oct 15, 2014 9:39pm

please check out my rendition of 'Something I Can Never Have'

https://soundcloud.com/hodarmuzzikk/nin-something-i-can-never-have-rolando-hodar-6am-relapse

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Oct 16, 2014 7:25pm

In reply to Ned Raggett:

So if I understand you theft becomes a reason to celebrate when it turns 25, that's just fucking brilliant... Just to clarify my position nirvana's back catalog is unoriginal material that transcends its influence, when one can tell specific songs that are aped like in this record that's more odious and more time is spent picking which material he's "sampling" than enjoying the music.. Meanwhile I pirate saw that documentary and it was utter bollocks. It seems to suggest that straight women or lgbt never picked up a guitar or mic or synth in that whole period and even a lobotomized fan boy can see industrial music belonged to queers and women..

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Arvo
Mar 10, 2015 10:04am

I remember Reznor saying in an interview that "Head Like A Hole" was a throwaway song that he wrote because the label needed a first single. I'm not sure why he played it live so much if that's the case. I'll have to look back at the demo bootleg to see if it's even on it. And the U2 ripoff track that didn't make it "Purest Feeling" is worth noting in your assessment, I'd say. Hard to tell what's pure and what's clever, but I love it nonetheless. Thanks for the nice write up.

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