Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

4.5 ★/9.0 - 9.9

Since day one, Trent Reznor has always been a better producer and songwriter than a front-man and performer. His background in theater clumsily translated into a career plagued by an unhealthy fixation on melodrama. Even Reznor's biggest supporters have probably always had a hard time defending the most frequent criticism of Nine Inch Nails, and especially Pretty Hate Machine: the abysmal lyrics. Usually, skeptics of the landmark industrial-crossover album will avoid dealing with any of the music (mainly because it's near-perfect), and instead whip out a list of the lyrical-sheet's biggest offenders, which falls to the floor and consists of at least one line on every single track; "how can you treat me like this, after you taught me how to kiss", "slipping on the tears you've made me cry", "grey would be the color, if I had a heart", "I still dream of lips I never should have never kissed" (Reznor seems to have a 3'rd graders obsession with kissing), and a host of other "cat-in-the-hat-delivered-by-an-angsty-leather-clad-teenage-goth-isms" are inherent in Reznor's delivery, making all his brooding and shouting feel a little cartoonish. As a matter of fact, on "Something I Can Never Have", where his voice is front-and-center, driving the entire minimalist ballad, it almost becomes too much to handle, and when you realize that Reznor would go on to craft much more subtle and affecting ballads thereafter ("Hurt", "Another Version of The Truth", "Lights in The Sky"), this song becomes an enormous, overlong pitfall disrupting the otherwise flawless sequencing of everything else. Of course, to like Nine Inch Nails at all, you have to embrace the infantile nature of Reznor's poetry, but even after doing so, Pretty Hate Machine can never quite rise above a near-masterpiece because of that steaming pile of failure in the center.

But Pretty Hate Machine is still a 'near-masterpiece'. The usage of keyboards, electronics and digital noise exhibited in almost every moment of the album are what make it one of the high points of 80's production, and while that means that listening to the album today makes it feel a little dated, like most of keyboard-heavy music from the decade, it doesn't change the fact that, for its time, this fusion of industrial, pop and dance was unique and breathtaking. The first 3 lead-off tracks and singles all exhibit brilliant hooks on the surface, urban polyrhythms under the exterior, and generally brilliant composition, while the electro-punk of "Sin", dramatic changes of "That's What I Get" and punchy slap-bass driving the infectious grooves of "Sanctified" and "The Only Time" push the album into classic status.

Over time, Reznor's studio wizardry would proceed to evolve and get even better in some ways, while his over-the-top delivery would stick around and fester. But no matter what changes he would proceed through (or avoid), whether for good (Year Zero) or bad (The Fragile), the Nine Inch Nails moniker would never achieve quite the same muscularity and consistency it captured here.

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