He was the guy who said "I want to f--- you like an animal." Oh, and "Your god is dead, and no one cares." Trent Reznor — better known by his musical project name Nine Inch Nails — built a career on brashness. Now, with 20-plus years under his belt as one of rock music's angriest performers, Reznor has started to soften.
But Reznor — who drew the ire of censors in the 1990s and scared the crap out of suburban kids watching MTV with his S&M-and-severed-animal-head music videos — has more than just softened. He's grown up and gotten wiser. "I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago, and I'm happy to not be that person," he recently told NPR. But he hasn't changed personally. He's grown as a musician and a composer.
He says those early albums that made Nine Inch Nails a paragon of angst were reflective of himself at that time, and his public persona as a perpetual grump reinforced what the music attacked head-on: here was a guy who was pissy and felt somehow slighted by the world. Obviously he was going to make angry music.
Anger got him far. Nine Inch Nails' second release, the 1992 EP Broken, earned Reznor two Grammy awards and propelled him into the spotlight as a musician, over-the-top performer and producer with a magic touch. His 1994 album The Downward Spiral fared even better, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Reznor brought industrial music — a brand of loud, aggressive music punctuated with explosive guitars, distortion and nagging mechanical noises — into the limelight.
Bringing such a fringey type of music into the popular eye was a remarkable phenomenon, though Reznor was hardly the founder or creator of the industrial aesthetic. For nearly a decade before Nine Inch Nails released an album, Ministry — a Chicago industrial outfit headed up by Al Jourgensen in much the same way that Reznor helmed NIN — had cranked out a constant stream of edgy, abrasive, offensive music. But there was something about Reznor and Nine Inch Nails that grabbed people in a way Jourgensen hadn't been able to. Reznor was kind of sexy and kind of emo, and in between songs about despising God, he'd lament his own pain. He was a pendulum swinging between rage and sorrow.
Soon Reznor's image would deepen. Five years went by before he produced a follow-up to The Downward Spiral, and it was met with a critical "meh." His addiction problems became public. His songs got less angry and more sad. In some ways, the anger that poured out of Reznor in the early '90s seemed like a farce — the output of someone who didn't know who they were quite yet. Fans of that early Reznor felt duped. Where was their patron saint of anger?
Today — married with kids, free from the addictions that once plagued him — his art reflects a different man. His latest record Hesitation Marks lacks the omnipresent doom of those early days. There's no severed heads, no ball gags, no monkeys hanging on crucifixes. The imagery of early Nine Inch Nails days now seems silly and tacked-on. Today, Reznor seems to be motivated by something different. Could it be happiness?
"Everything," the new album's seventh track, is practically a pre-packaged radio hit, with the same masterful beats that have long served as Nine Inch Nails' backbone but a poppy, upbeat, singable chorus. (It's the first Nine Inch Nails song I could hear my mom listening to.)
In the chorus, Reznor is liberated, singing "Wave goodbye/Wish me well/I've become/Something else" and then "I am whole/I believe/I am whole/I am free/I am whole/I can see." It's like his coming-out proclamation, as if he's saying, "That guy I used to be? Yeah, forget about him. I like who I am now."
Maybe he's happy. Maybe he's still really pissed off. But however he feels, Reznor is more guarded in his emotions, subversive with his words. His songs are meticulously arranged and full of texture. As much as those early Nine Inch Nails songs were about pushing boundaries, it seems like right now, more than 20 years later, we're hearing Trent Reznor — the real, grown-up Trent Reznor — for the very first time. ♦
Nine Inch Nails with Explosions in the Sky • Tue, Nov. 19 at 7:30 pm • Spokane Arena • 720 W. Mallon • $30-$70 • All-ages • ticketswest.com • (800) 325-SEAT