Nine Inch Nails is playing Toronto tonight (Friday) and I’m going. I wish I could say I’m really excited. I am somewhat, but not as much as I have been for past concerts, mainly because the band’s set list so far on this tour is featuring mainly newer material. Having just released a new album, Hesitation Marks, NIN mastermind Trent Reznor is putting his recent stuff front and centre. Typically, more than half the songs he’s playing are coming from his 2007 album Year Zero and onward. That’s bad.
I’ve been joking with friends that Year Zero can almost be considered the beginning of Nine Inch Nails’ Sammy Hagar era – that post jumping-the-shark period when everything new pales to what came before. Don’t get me wrong – I really like Hagar and his post-1986 version of Van Halen (or Van Hagar), but I’m cognizant of and in agreement with what so many fans of that band think: that the original, David Lee Roth era was far superior.
From the 1989 debut of Pretty Hate Machine to With Teeth in 2005, Nine Inch Nails produced some of the best music going; inventive, creative, textured, and most importantly, emotionally explosive. The songs were often angry, sad or melancholic, sometimes beautiful and always cathartic. For me and millions of fans, it was soothing to have someone else so viscerally articulate our feelings and ease our angst, whether it was by asking God “why are you doing this to me?” or telling oneself that “I won’t let you fall apart,” as Reznor so forcefully did in songs such as Terrible Lie and The Fragile.
But, as I’ve learned in my own aging process, not a lot of people stay angry for too long. The problems of youth tend to lessen in their extremeness as the wisdom, or least comforts, of age slowly creep in. As we get older we find new things to make us happy or we accept the world as it is. That’s certainly what seems to have happened to Reznor, who over the years managed to kick booze and drugs and even get married. He dabbled in other musical fields too and even won an Oscar for his score to The Social Network.
Now, he gets kudos from music critics for “maturing” as an artist and for writing the same dense, technically brilliant music as he has always produced. Some of Hesitation Marks is proficient and catchy, to be sure, but his music (which includes his How To Destroy Angels side project with his wife) hasn’t had an edge – or cajones, or oomph, or emotion, or whatever else we want to call it – since With Teeth. Part of this can be explained by age and its resultant mellowing, but part of it is also due to technology, which is where I can finally make this screed relevant to the stuff I normally write about.
Reznor has always been on the cutting edge of technology. Most notably, he was one of the biggest names to try digital distribution of his work, releasing his four-album instrumental Ghosts I-IV in 2008, while also offering fans The Slip for free the same year. More to the point, though, he has always heavily processed his music with whatever computer technology was available at the time in order to achieve many of his unique sounds, from Pretty Hate Machine onward.
Age and mellowing aside, Year Zero is when he appears to have gone overboard in that respect, with every album since sounding like it was mostly produced on a Mac rather than with actual instruments. I’m in complete agreement with Foo Fighters maestro and Reznor contemporary Dave Grohl, who has repeatedly commented about how this sort of process robs music of its undefinable soul. As he told a newspaper in 2011, “All that s**t ruins music these days. Drum machines work for pop artists, but when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll – don’t f**k with the human element… I had favorite drummers because of their inconsistencies. Modern production has robbed drummers of personalities and it really p**ses me off.” He wasn’t talking about Nine Inch Nails directly, but he may as well have been.
On top of the technology, however, there’s also the soul aspect – the ghost in the machine, so to speak. While listening to Hesitation Marks the other day, I noticed something highly unusual for a NIN record: the near-total absence of vulgarity. I couldn’t make out a single F-word and it wasn’t until I perused the album’s actual printed lyrics that I indeed found two instances.
That got me thinking: how much profanity has he used on his other albums? Could there be a trend? Might the F-word somehow be representative of NIN’s very soul?
I sat down and counted, and my goofy theory sure looks to be right. Here’s a chart documenting the use of the F-word on all major NIN releases:
As the chart indicates, Reznor started in on his use of F-bombs gingerly, with only a couple on Pretty Hate Machine. It started ramping on the short EP Broken, then exploded on The Downward Spiral, The Fragile and With Teeth. Not coincidentally, those are his best albums. After that, usage drops off dramatically. I’m not sure if this correlation says anything to anyone else, but it speaks volumes to me. Those profanity-laced albums were when Reznor indeed made music with teeth (forgive the pun).
Far be it from me, or anyone else, to criticize an artist for the things they feel they need to do or for the directions they choose to go in. If Reznor wants to explore technological music, that’s his prerogative – I’ll probably still buy his albums and go to his shows, if only in the vain hope that he chooses to some day return to making the sort of music I so treasured: soulful, real and powerful. In the meantime, I’ll try to appreciate his technological proficiency as the critics do, even if none of it makes me want to fornicate with someone like an animal.