halo 8

The Village Voice -- April 5, 1994

Piggy Fucker

By Eric Weisbard

When Trent Reznor broke out of the pack singing "Head like a hole/Black as your soul/I'd rather die than give you control" on the first Lollapalooza tour three years ago, the key to his triumph wasn't just adding extra guitars to Pretty Hate Machine's teenybop death disco -- it was writing an industrial song with the word I in it. In the music Reznor loves, artists reject confessional to act like carnival barkers, drawing you into the fun house: "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen! Today we feature a foetus scraped from a wheel, sex on wheels, and a hot rod built by Jesus himself." The goal is to blast or pervert a listener clear out of any settled individuality. But Reznor is different. Though it clearly embarasses him -- causing him to hide behind the name of a nonexistent band, shy from putting his face on his records, and lets friends like J.G. Thirlwell and Coil spend an album's length of time removing his personality from his songs (the Fixed remixes of the Broken EP) -- his instincts as an artist ultimately serve the superbly egotistical, needy rock star within. No wonder Axl Rose wanted NIN to open for G'N'R.

Axel aside (and even he blames a tormented childhood) I wish self-aware men still had the effrontery to just be rock stars. Renunciation of power doesn't honor or compensate for anyone else's powerlessness. It just diminishes the ideal of unabashed expression, which remains rock's single contribution to popular culture. This stance falls somewhere between hypocrisy and shooting yourself in the foot, because without unabashed expression NIN would belong to the fringe, not the charts. Reznor's unstable mixture of self-denial and innate grandiosity is essentially passive-aggressive -- and creates a kind of vortex in his work: how vibrantly will he eradicate himself next? NIN's latest video, "March of the Pigs," is a smugly one-take band performance that spits at the subtleties of the album version. In the "Head Like a Hole" clip, studio rat Reznor is wrapped up in recording tape and pulled off the stage into oblivion. MTV's favorite, "Wish," shows the singer and his hired guns, in vaguely S/M gear, playing inside a cage until the rabid Mad Max youth storm their way in. The unairable "Happiness in Slavery" features performance artist Bob Flanagan, butt naked, voluntarily strapping himself into a chair whose tweezer claws rend his flesh, tear out his genitals, and grind him into wormy chuck. Then Reznor enters the room -- whether to clean up or take a turn on the hot seat isn't clear.

These videos shiftly play off of modern primitive, queer, hardcore punk, and cyber subcultures, without ever really forcing Reznor to position himself in any of them. His favorite stance is to rail as a diseased, brutalized I against the emissaries of a straight, white, male, corporate, fundamentalist You (or God, or he, or, on the new album, "pig"). Not an especially original take on evil -- this is, after all, a man who chose to live where Sharon Tate died -- but it serves its purpose. Reznor can be as pissed off as he wants without seeming like another sexist asshole American rock boy. He will never feel compelled to apologize and sing "everyone is gay" like Kurt Cobain, but he never need reveal his sexual orientation either. The pose lends itself to power chords and catchy choruses. And it's fake as...hell -- even if the emotions Reznor is expressing are real to him and lots of other people too, because every self-serving gesture of failure and debasement only ends up adding to the magnitude of Nine Inch Nails' accomplishment.

Now, from out of the vortex, comes a new album, The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope), a themed set of songs about a horribly alienated protagonist who tries sex, religion, drugs, and whatnot, takes his life, then sings a song and a half from the beyond. (Are you listening, Pete Townshend?) Even when his subject is dehumanization, Reznor has to be Mr. Anomie, starring in a totally operatic concept album. Still, the snickers stop about one minute into the studio version of the single "March of the Pigs." An industrial rave-up someone clocked at 269 bpm strips down to a pulse beat and a noise resembling a blow-dryer, then suddenly falls away altogether: a regular old piano tinkles some notes and Reznor says "Now doesn't that make you feel better?" Well, yes, actually. Didn't think you had it in you, Trent.

But I was wrong. The pacing and buried surprises on this album are close to perfect. The mix opens and closes, honors air and water as much as earth and fire. Interplays of hard and soft, electronic and acoustic, hypermasculine and falsetto, ranting and crooning suffuse the textures, giving it a musical richness I've never heard before from this genre -- or on any other new record in 1994 thus far, save one. (That would be Under the Pink by the equally confused Tori Amos, for whom Reznor did a backing vocal.) "Piggy" ends with drums that sound played, not machine-like, but they've been compressed into rhythms no human could manage in real time: a sequenced avalanche. Robot noises find their natural antiphony, strummed guitars on "The Becoming." The title track, a suicide tale, has a deliberately smudged sound, like a needle with dust on it, over which the singer easily whispers, a spectral observer. A long instrumental sequence at midpoint in the album, including the unabashedly pretty "A Warm Place," makes sure we'll fully register "Reptile," with its lurching rhythms and monster-of-rock riffage.

For an anthem there's "Heresy" ("Your God is dead and no one cares/If there is a hell I will see you there"), and NIN still crank stray noise like an organ grinder with a thermonuclear fuzz box. But he's not restricting his palette anymore, which for this artist is as brave and idealistic as he's ever permitted of himself. There are effortless and masterful nods to techno, in songs like "March of the Pigs" and "Big Man with a Gun." Returned are the new-wave twitters that he renounced in fear after Lollapalooza. Even better, the key to this album's innovative soundscape, which includes Adrian Belew on "texture generating guitars," is NIN's nod to classic rock. Check out the Bonzo drums that open "Piggy," the guitar solo in "Ruiner," and especially the final track, the ballad "Hurt," where Reznor removes all but the hissiest traces of machine effects, singing out over simple guitar chords and surging tom-toms. As Sonic Youth taught us long ago, an antirock sound embracing rock forms is as delicious as it gets.

Besides "Reptile," the peak moment on Downward Spiral is "Closer." A deliberately arch, new-wavey vocal dallies over a riff that reminds me of Bowie's "Fame." Reznor gets to the chorus -- "I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside" -- and the song finds a groove, powerful without fraying off into white noise. Even the words seem substantial for once. Then, instead of building from there, the song's momentum dissipates into a loose instrumental jam: yet another way of avoiding greatness. Reznor needs to cut away those carnival-barker contrivances entirely. (Is there therapy for freeing the inner rock star?) Then, perhaps, his sonic versatility won't be yoked to comic-book copy like "the ruiner's a collector he's an infector serving his shit to his flies" (by the way, Trent looks a lot like Morpheus in D.C.'s Sandman). Music so varied and powerful shouldn't be propping up such run-of-the-mill alienation. When it does, the distance between what Trent Reznor's gifts and charisma make him capable of achieving, and what his sensibilities want to allow, suddenly feels like the one tragedy he never intended to convey. May he put the hair shirt in the closet next time and let all that his ears are capable of encompassing permeate the rest of him.

-- transcribed by michael heumann

other supplemental reading