October 23, 2017

Scot and Jeff talk to Jane Coaston about Nine Inch Nails.

Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Jane Coaston, formerly political writer for MTV news, now featured in the New York Times and ESPN News, among others. Follow Jane on Twitter at @cjane87 and read her (older) work here.

Jane's Musical Pick: Nine Inch Nails
Perch those toasters precariously close to edge of the bathtub and prepare to slide into a downward spiral, as the gang tackles one of the 90's most influential acts (and one whose massive mainstream success was frankly surprising), Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails. Jane has loved them ever since she first found The Fragile as a teenager -- a gay kid in Catholic school, more than a bit confused about her place in the world -- and immediately bonded with Trent Reznor's anger and sadness. Jeff marvels at the fact that he had never really listened to NIN before Jane pushed it on him a couple months ago, and calls them one of the most wonderful (belated) musical discoveries he's made in the last several years. In particular he taken with the technical excellence of Reznor's production, from the endlessly layered synth sounds all the way to the overdriven guitarwork.

KEY TRACKS: "The Fragile" (The Fragile, 1999); "Head Like A Hole" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

Beginnings: Pretty Hate Machine and the Hardcore Turn of the Broken EP
Jeff gets a huge kick out of pointing out that, technically speaking, Nine Inch Nails is an EIGHTIES band. And it's true! Even though we don't think of them or Reznor as belonging to that decade because how much he went on to define the sound of the '90s. But the entire gang actually enjoys Pretty Hate Machine quite a bit (though Jane thinks its final two tracks are the worst NIN ever did). Jeff points out commercial this music really is -- "Head Like A Hole" was Reznor's first hit for a reason -- and frankly loves the way Reznor mutated the typical industrial genre by deigning to actually, you know, write songs with catchy hooks in that mode.

If Pretty Hate Machine is sometimes dismissed by aficionados of industrial music for its New Order/Depeche Mode synth-pop underpinning, nobody does that with Broken, an EP that Reznor recorded in secret while trying to escape from under the thumb of his original record label. Broken is only 21 minutes long (31m if you count the bonus tracks), but in many ways it remains one of the most definitive industrial 'statements' ever released and is also the most impressively brutal thing Nine Inch Nails released. Everyone loves "Wish." Jeff argues that the unexpectedly quiet transitional instrumental "Help I Am In Hell" is the moment where Reznor's conceptual ambition (and genius) first emerged. And Jane wants you to watch the video for "Pinion."

KEY TRACKS: "Terrible Lie" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989); "Sin" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989); "Something I Can Never Have" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989); "Wish" (Broken EP, 1992); "Help Me I Am In Hell" (Broken EP, 1992); "Gave Up" (Broken EP, 1992); "Suck" (Broken EP, 1992)

A Beautiful Corpse-Flower: The Downward Spiral and the Album as Art-Form
In some ways there's not much to say about The Downward Spiral that hasn't already been said elsewhere: this is the one Nine Inch Nails album everyone should own, and the one that will, from track 1, completely subvert the received stereotype of Reznor as a mere noise-merchant. Jane, Jeff and Scot all marvel at the layers and layers of sound that Reznor one-man-bands into a titanic groove on songs like "Piggy" (Jeff's favorite) and "Closer" (Jane wants to a erect a shrine to the instrumental playout alone). The gang laughs at how Jeff was scandalized by the lyrics of "Closer" as a bluenose teen, and Jane points out that far too many people fail to realize the song isn't supposed to be a seductive song at all. Then the inevitable discussion of "Hurt" where (perhaps surprisingly) the whole gang agrees that, as great as NIN's version is, Johnny Cash ended up doing it better. Buy this album.

A brief sidebar ensues as Jane is invited to discourse on the significance of NIN/Reznor's many remixes and remix albums (e.g. Fixed, or Further Down The Spiral), and why NIN stands apart from nearly every other band in rock history in the critical importance and value of their remix work, which is rewriting much of the time.

KEY TRACKS: "Closer" (The Downward Spiral, 1994); "Piggy" (The Downward Spiral, 1994); "March Of The Pigs" (The Downward Spiral, 1994); "The Becoming" (The Downward Spiral, 1994); "Reptile" (The Downward Spiral, 1994); "Hurt" [Johnny Cash] (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002); "Hurt (quiet)" (Further Down The Spiral, 1995); "Closer To God" (Closer To God EP, 1994)

Drugs, Darkness, and The Fragile
After a long layoff, during which the commercial momentum of The Downward Spiral had dissipated almost completely. Meanwhile, as Scot points out, the rest of the musical world had greedily absorbed Trent Reznor's signature sounds and innovations, NIN emerged from seclusion in 1999 with The Fragile, a record criticized at the time for its sprawl and difficulty (no immediate chart classics here, oh no not so), but which has since achieved a reputation nearly equal to that of The Downward Spiral. This is Jane's favorite album and she insists that anyone giving NIN a shot begin here, and just listen to the entire adventure. And an adventure it is, agrees Jeff, who finds himself strongly drawn to its subtleties and its combination of quality with genuine lack of compromise. The one track everyone agrees is a mess, though, is the Marilyn Manson potshot (that seems to cop his style, to boot) of "Starf***ers, Inc."

With Teeth divides the gang. Scot enjoys this one immensely, whereas Jeff feels like, for the first time, Reznor has made a semi-generic-sounding NIN album.

KEY TRACKS: "The Day The World Went Away" (The Fragile, 1999); "The Wretched" (The Fragile, 1999); "We're In This Together" (The Fragile, 1999); "La Mer" (The Fragile, 1999); "The Great Below" (The Fragile, 1999); "Where Is Everybody" (The Fragile, 1999); "Starf***ers, Inc." (The Fragile, 1999); "The Hand That Feeds" (With Teeth, 2003); "Only" (With Teeth, 2003); "Right Where It Belongs" (With Teeth, 2003)

The Mid-2000s Outpouring and the Comeback LP
After kicking a nasty heroin habit and winding up his record deal with Interscope, Trent Reznor suddenly goes from a "once per presidential administration" release pattern to dropping three complete records within the span of 2007-2008. Jeff is not a fan of the overtly elaborate concept album Year Zero (2007) or the holding pattern of The Slip (2008), but he utterly adores the release that came in between the, the purely Eno-esque collection of instrumental themes and fragments Ghosts I-IV. This is work that carries on the finest tradition of Music For Films or Discreet Music, and is easily NIN's most underrated release. Jane enjoys it as well and cites to Reznor's 'solo' work doing soundtrack work for the films of David Fincher and Ken Burns' Vietnam documentary as a key fruit of Ghosts.

Everyone has strong praise for NIN's "comeback" album Hesitation Marks however, released in 2013 after Reznor temporarily retired the NIN name (from boredom or exhaustion). Hesitation Marks is the sound of a man who actually seems reasonably well-adjusted and comfortable in his skin for once, and the result is a record that recaptures many of the sonic subtleties of his '90s era work with a new commitment to melody and structure.

KEY TRACKS: "6 Ghosts I" (Ghosts I-IV, 2008); "Letting You" (The Slip, 2008) "Lights In The Sky" (The Slip, 2008); "Find My Way" (Hesitation Marks, 2013); "All Time Low" (Hesitation Marks, 2013); "Copy Of A" (Hesitation Marks, 2013); "Everything" (Hesitation Marks, 2013)

Jane, Scot and Jeff each name their two key albums and five key songs by Nine Inch Nails

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