Trent Reznor May Be the Most Underrated Man in Rock Music

Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails headline Day for Night on Saturday.
Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails headline Day for Night on Saturday. Photo by Jim Bricker
Rock music is littered with bands who rose to prominence in the '90s, have weathered the storm that is life as a mainstream musician, and in the process, earned living legend status. Dave Grohl did it. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (who plays Day For Night this weekend, but we’ll get to that in a second) did it. Eddie Vedder most certainly did the same.

These are names that instantaneously spring to mind when thinking of '90s stalwarts who successfully blend their standings as classic rock institutions while still, ya know, contributing quality music to this day. Call them geniuses. Call them legends. Call them what you will.

Trent Reznor – whose Nine Inch Nails headline Day for Night on Saturday – most certainly qualifies for that list. Nine Inch Nails rose to prominence with a unique industrial sound. Reznor – who for all intents and purposes, pretty much is Nine Inch Nails – took a hiatus around the turn of the decade while dealing with depression and substance abuse issues. He returned with a revitalized sound that somewhat eschewed Nine Inch Nails’ hard, edgy sound in favor of a more somber, darker tone. He even picked up an Academy Award along the way.

Point being, Trent Reznor is a legend and a genius, and this is acknowledged by many. It should be acknowledged by more.

Reznor’s career can essentially be divided into two parts – pre- and post-sobriety. Before getting clean, Reznor recorded some of the darkest, most angst-filled rock of the '90s. Often unfairly lumped in with others like Marilyn Manson and Filter – both fine bands, but not on the same level – Nine Inch Nails is often viewed as a relic of that decade, when in actuality, the band’s catalog holds up quite well to this day.

NIN burst onto the scene in late 1989 with Pretty Hate Machine. Written, recorded and produced by Reznor, the band’s debut spent months on the Billboard charts and eventually became among the first independent records to go Platinum. Whereas some bands would have quickly capitalized on their newfound fame, the notoriously meticulous Reznor didn’t release another proper NIN album for nearly five years.

That album, The Downward Spiral, is easily one of the best, most influential rock records of the time. It is NIN’s best album to date, which probably explains why it is the band’s highest-selling to date, having gone Platinum four times over. Reznor waited another five years before releasing The Fragile in 1999. Reznor was in the midst of a dark phase in his life during the recording of The Fragile, which is somewhat ironic, considering the album is far softer and more melodic than its predecessors. The Fragile was greeted with mixed reviews upon its release, but mostly because it didn’t sound like The Downward Spiral Part 2; The Fragile was and remains a great record.

From there, Reznor disappeared, even for his relatively private standards. Turns out, the aforementioned depression and substance abuse were far more severe than one could imagine, so severe that Reznor once overdosed while on tour. From there, the second act begins. Having completed rehab in 2001, Reznor took some time away from music to focus on self-improvement and general well-bring.

A lot of musicians get sober, find happiness and begin putting out music that, to be kind, pales in comparison to their previous work. Reznor is decidedly not one of those musicians. Instead, NIN’s 2005 comeback, With Teeth, ranks near the top of the band’s catalog and takes listeners on a trip through the hell that was Reznor’s life as he battled through addiction and recovery.

You know the story from there. Reznor and production partner Atticus Ross won an Academy Award for their efforts in scoring The Social Network. Yes, the man who once terrified mainstream America, back when musicians could actually do so, was now an Oscar winner. NIN continued to put out new music. While not as impactful as its early work, latter-era releases like Year Zero, The Slip and Ghosts I-IV showcase Reznor’s desire and abilities to evolve the band’s sound (very few NIN releases resemble one another in scope and sound, and this is no accident).

Few dispute Reznor’s place in the rock legend pantheon, and yet, few acknowledge it without initial prompting. Perhaps that’s because NIN hasn’t really been a mainstream force in well over a decade. Perhaps it’s because Reznor lives a relatively quiet life and has comfortably segued into life as a family man.

Either way, Day for Night goers have a chance to see rock royalty on Saturday night. Trent Reznor lived the stereotypical rock star life, one that almost killed him, and managed to do what few have – came out clean on the other side. He may not be the most successful rock star of his era, nor is he the most prominent. What he may be, however, is the best.
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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale