bad witch

Nine Inch Nails

Capitol • 2018

Capitol • 2018

Trent Reznor has carried around anger, resentment, and an unshakeable desire for self-destruction for over 25 years as Nine Inch Nails. He’s cryptically described the arc of his post-Trump-election trilogy of EPs as a statement of unease and disgust with the state of the world (Not the Actual Events, released December 2016), followed by an outward-turning of those feelings (Add Violence, July 2017), and now with the newly-released conclusion Bad Witch, a recognition that no, this disgust comes from me, and in fact “at our core, we are rotten;” a pessimistic and civilization-damning bottom line that aligns with what has come before in his oeuvre. I’m not sure if I’ve got that right as a summation, but the three records are certainly a sweeping conceptual thrust that give voice to the dread and doubt of our age, without offering tacked-on, unreasoned false hope.

Those feelings are very present today in me personally, and in much of my observations of modern humans. Nine Inch Nails sounds good to me again; honest, immediate and unforgiving. Reznor’s works are my go-to feel-bad music. Some favor The Cure, The Smiths, Elliott Smith, whoever; but my windows-rolled up, screaming-along, bad mood music has been Reznor’s since “Head Like a Hole” hit in high school. I grew up in northeast Ohio, near where Trent lived and recorded when Pretty Hate Machine came out, and Cleveland was quick to claim him as their own.  So I was always going to cheer and scream for him, but the resonance is undeniable. I would need a couple weeks in therapy to fully unpack what NIN means to me: an avenue for cathartic expression of feelings I’m afraid to experience, yet can’t keep from coming on, “negative” though they may be.

That’s why as far as I’m concerned, Reznor can do anything he wants. He’s got an Oscar and two certified classics (The Downward Spiral and The Fragile) on his resume, and he had equity in Beats, didn’t he? He’s got the juice to take aggressive control of the ticket-buying and admission procedures for his upcoming tour to suit his tastes, attempting to make his shows a truly communal experience for his fans. He’s Legacy, even if the Rock Hall is too silly to acknowledge it. Any new release of his is worth attention, and though I don’t think he’s ever struck out, there was a period near the first temporary retirement of the brand when perhaps he wasn’t 100% earning the bandwidth (Year Zero, The Slip). But after the short-lived How to Destroy Angels project coalesced back into the reopening of the NIN shop, and his film scoring partner Atticus Ross became a permanent band member, there’s been ungrudging interest in his new stuff. 2013’s comeback LP Hesitation Marks is holding up quite well, even/especially the shocking major chord pop departure of “Everything.”

But Hesitation Marks was overlong as an album, as if he wanted to include every Nine-y idea he’d had in the five year interim. Which is why I feel like the eighteen-month span in which he’s released these three records, for which he’s apologized, is totally NBD. Best not to rush. The trilogy in its 16-track, 78 minute, fits-on-one CD-R totality (Bad Witch referred to as an album though it’s not significantly longer than the first two chapters due to boring streaming service categorization reasons) is a notable achievement. Its potential impact, though, may be feared to be lessened by the broken-up release schedule. That marketing concern, and the tour coming up, is probably why we’ve got Trent out here on the interview circuit talking shit about Kanye and Taylor and The Weeknd--the famously forthright frontman knows these three EPs rank strongly in (at least the second tier of) his discography and would like some recognition, please.

However, the old crank's prime point in his release run-up rantings is that recording artists should be doing more with their platforms, and with these three records he’s been trying to wake us up to our own culpability in participating in a destructive system. Plenty of Trent's shit has been talked about our current corrupt, unjust, cruel and dismayingly effective administration as well, but instead of just pointing and saying "Bad!" he's suggesting we examine the root of our hatred, and admit our inaction in addressing the things that darken our spirit.

Following Add Violence’s mesmerizing droney/skippy outro “The Background World,” Bad Witch brings us back from the eighteen-month intermission with “Shit Mirror,” a fuzzed-out punk rave-up with a title and a refrain (“New world/New times/Mutation/Feels alright”) that announces up top the finger of disgust is going to be pointing back at ourselves on this record. “Ahead of Ourselves” keeps up the energy with some “The Perfect Drug”-reminiscent breakbeats, while Reznor rails against a god he’s pretty certain isn’t there before giving humankind’s “celebration of ignorance” and inability to change our disastrously selfish ways the full force of his ire.  This can be fun: you can’t yell at every fool in public who’s doing it wrong, and even the most active activist is going to feel powerless at times amidst all the brazen greed, hypocrisy and callousness, so driving tracks that spit righteous venom act as viscerally satisfying safety valves. That’s the Nine Inch Nails knack.

The EP also includes a pair of instrumentals that continue Reznor’s long tradition (that led directly to his scoring projects) of repeated melodic themes counterpoised with noise and distortion. The newest musical development on Bad Witch then, is his pseudo-Bowie croon, deployed on advance single “God Break Down the Door” and closer “Over and Out,” as he presumably pays tribute to his former mentor, tourmate and collaborator. Some surprising instrumentation enters in as well: ”God Break”’s saxophones make it sound like a cover of an outtake from Blackstar, and some peaceful, contemplative shadings are extracted from what sounds like a kalimba or steelpan on “Over and Out.”

There, he demonstrates his ability to put an essential truth, a haunted feeling, or an inescapable obsession into a few simple words and mantra-like drive them into your subconscious, as he sings “Time is running out/I don’t know what I’m waiting for” again and again, an idea that took the form of a wounded revelation on Add Violence (“I thought we had more time” on “This Isn’t the Place”), but now in this reeling, unfamiliar delivery, plays as a sobering portrait of people in stasis, breaking through and finally dawning upon the absurdity of remaining chained to misery. 

I have a feeling I'm not the only kid on my block who deeply identifies with the arc of these three records--built up over an interminable eighteen months of idiocy and frustration--that we know better than the bullshit we see before us, yet  can't move outside ourselves to act when we know we should. What are we afraid of? Reznor has variously danced with and shouted down self-hatred, self-medication, and self-obsession in great teeth-gnashing detail over his career, but now, ensconced as a husband and father, an accomplished and validated artist, and in control of his addictions, he seems to be willing himself to get over himself, to transform his doubts and direct his rage towards the targets that truly deserve them, admonishing us in the process to do the same, while we still can.

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Postscript: For me the centerpiece of the trilogy remains “She’s Gone Away” from Not the Actual Events, written for Twin Peaks:The Return with David Lynch’s instructions to “make my hair stand on end.” Its massive, creeping blues was used as an unnerving caesura from the traumas of perhaps the most singular, daring episode in TV history, "Part 8." Yes, “Gotta light?” Oh my god, an atomic bomb blast. Holy crap, a creature crawling into a sleeping child’s mouth. But more relevant to Reznor's contemporaneous recordings, the defining hour of Lynch's series set about the mythological work of finding the locus and lodge of evil within ourselves.