It took Trent Reznor a decade to write the perfected version of a very specific type of Nine Inch Nails song. Starting with With Teeth, most Nine Inch Nails records have swung for the mainstream rock fences with a sorta-dancey track that is usually better in theory than practice. “The Hand That Feeds” works well enough as a George W. protest groove anthem, but tracks like “Capital G,” “Discipline” and “Come Back Haunted” have an air of diminishing returns around them. They’re not bad, exactly, but you couldn’t help but think that Reznor could do better.
But earlier this year he released “Less Than,” a song that is dancey, a little dangerous, a little sexy AND has a message behind it. It’s the first song on Add Violence, the best thing to be released under the Nine Inch Nails name since 1994’s The Downward Spiral.
That’s not a slight on The Fragile, Year Zero or Hesitation Marks, it’s just at five songs long Add Violence is all killer, no filler, and features two songs that absolutely belong in the NIN canon of great works; in addition to “Less Than,” Add Violence features “The Background World,” which is the most interesting Nine Inch Nails song of all time.
It was the strength of Add Violence that caused me to do a deep dive into Nine Inch Nails’ catalogue earlier this year. They’ve been one of my favorite bands for as long as I’ve enjoyed music as an active listener, but it had been years since I had really sat down and listened to all their albums in totality. In the end there was no grand lesson for me to report, just a solid collection of albums that range from decent to brilliant, including quite possibly the greatest hard rock EP of all time (Broken) and the best “almost perfect” record ever (The Downward Spiral).
Which is why it’s going to be weird here, five paragraphs into this article, that I’m going to tell you that my admiration of Trent Reznor largely has nothing to do with his music. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’d cry real tears if he ever played “And All That Could Have Been” live and I still live to feel the crushing wave of “Reptile” in person, but Trent Reznor’s strengths as a songwriter have never been in question (except for maybe when “Deep” was a single, but we don’t talk about that anymore).
The world is full of people more than willing to expound upon the genius of Nine Inch Nail’s early career arc from Pretty Hate Machine to The Fragile, and that’s great, but what interests me most of about Trent Reznor is his embrace of technology, the risks he’s taken as a mainstream musician and his relationship with his fans.
Trent Reznor wasn’t the first to experiment with unusual album rollouts, but he’s certainly one of the most high profile. A year after Radiohead dropped Hail to the Thief as a pay-what-you-want release, Nine Inch Nails released multiple versions of Ghosts I-IV, including a free, shorter version of the release available through Bittorrent. In the long arc of history, it might end up being, along with the soundtrack to The Social Network, the music people will think of first 100 years from now when they think of Nine Inch Nails due to the Creative Commons license attached to it. Seriously, there are so many episodes of This American Life that feature music from Ghosts.
Reznor followed that up by releasing the next Nine Inch Nails records for free digitally. The message attached to the release of The Slip — “this one’s on me” — was so popular that it was modified and adapted to “This One Is On Us” by a group of hardcore NIN fans dedicated to preserving the band’s live performances. In the greater scope of NIN’s career, The Slip isn’t just some collection of songs destined for the dustbin, given away rather than archived; songs from the album still pop up in NIN setlists.
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He gave back to the community in another way with the now sadly gone remix.nin.com. The site allowed fans to share their remixes of NIN songs and provided the multitrack audio needed to create remixes. Multiple NIN releases have had their multitracks released, giving fans unprecedented access when it comes to giving their spin on songs released by a mainstream artist.
Reznor has taken his risks. Nine Inch Nails went independent for a few years to see how working without a record label would go. He produced Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! And helped promote its free-or-$5 release model. He joined up with Beats and later Apple as part of a project to try and make subscription services better at figuring out what listeners enjoy. And he’s released enough different versions of The Fragile at this point that even Kanye West might scoff.
One day Nine Inch Nails will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, largely on the strength of their first four releases. It will be well deserved. But my hope is, as it’s been for the last decade or so, that Trent Reznor’s ultimate influence will not be heard in songs released by other artists, but in how we interact with those songs and artists.
But yeah, that “fuck you like an animal” song is pretty cool too.