i was up above it…

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nail’s 1989 debut album. Relative to what Nine Inch Nails eventually became, PHM is an odd (and according to Trent Reznor, embarrassing) outlier in the NIN catalog, an artifact that sounds much more “of its time” than NIN’s iconic ’90s records. It’s also a massively influential and widely beloved album in its own right, and happens to contain two of my all-time favorite Nine Inch Nails songs–the perennially relevant anti-capitalist pop anthem “Head Like a Hole” and the claustrophobically funky “Down In It,” perhaps the Prince-iest thing Reznor ever recorded.

Written when Trent Reznor was 24 years old, mostly at night in Reznor’s off time from a job cleaning toilets in a recording studio in Cleveland, Ohio, PHM‘s seething blend of Midwestern new wave, heavy rock and sample-driven industrial sounded, for better and for worse, quite unlike anything else. Influenced by Reznor’s love of Devo and Depeche Mode, as well as the aforementioned Prince, PHM was the first step on Reznor’s journey into melding the raw, introspective darkness of industrial artists like Coil and Ministry with the extroverted, head-banging, fist-pumping energy of pop. It sounded, to many young people, like a revelation. It’s difficult to understate the impact PHM had on the next generation of artists. According to the Faint’s Todd Fink, “Pretty Hate Machine was the start of a whole new way of thinking about electronic music for me.”

Perhaps the most important thing PHM accomplished was introducing the world to Reznor himself–his figurative voice as a songwriter, blunt, dark and jaundiced–but also his literal voice, riding high atop the mix, with its incredible dynamic range from seductive whisper to bloodcurdling shriek. While Reznor has evolved significantly as a producer, songwriter and instrumentalist, his vocal chops seem to have arrived fully formed and remain one of PHM‘s strongest features.

Original NIN guitarist Richard Patrick, later of Filter, recalls the PHM era thus:

Trent is an icon from that period of music, and he always will be. There are so many talented artists from that amazing, explosive era. Trent is way up there. He was fully committed towards chaos and was insanely upset at the world. He just was not happy—just not a happy kid, and primarily, it was because of that insanely awful record deal. Also, Cleveland is really dreary.

Pretty Hate Machine is a brooding, angry album with lots of textures and sounds. It’s all about Trent’s voice. He has the ability, when he sings, that, from the moment you hear his voice, you are sucked in, and that’s the reason why that record was so monumental.

For more insight into PHM, I highly recommend Daphne Carr’s 2011 33 1/3 book on Pretty Hate Machine. It is, no joke, the book that got me into Nine Inch Nails. Combining Carr’s personal insight as an NIN fan with her academic training as an oral historian, Pretty Hate Machine (the book) gives vital context to the splendor and misery of PHM (the album) in a way that made NIN finally make sense to me. I grew up in the heart of Nine Inch Nails country (the rural, post-industrial midwest of the 1990s) but I didn’t become a full-blown NIN fan until age 28, when I read Daphne’s book.

Shortly after reading the book and hearing the album for the first time in full, I developed my own musical scheme which–though it has yet to be sonically realized in full–I will go ahead and share with you now. It’s an EP titled p3tty h8 m4chin3, a series of atypical Nine Inch Nails covers that I can only describe as “unabashedly girly,” written from the perspective of a teenage NIN stan. I had hoped to finish in time for the PHM 30th anniversary, but it’s still very much in the nascent stages. (Turns out, making records is really hard!!) I would like to state, for the record, that my idea predates Reznor’s own upbeat girly-pop reworkings of NIN songs featured in a recent episode of Black Mirror, as performed by Miley Cyrus. Rather than changing the literal meaning of the songs by rewriting the lyrics, as Reznor did for Black Mirror, I’m interesting in seeing what I can do to bring my own meaning to the music through an unusual and seemingly inappropriate sonic approach–a disco edit of “Head Like a Hole,” for example. It could be great, or it could be a disaster. However it turns out, I’m hereby committed to sharing it with the world when I finish it.

waiting room

Hello again! It’s been a minute. How are you? I’ve been better.

Last Friday night, I tripped on my way down the subway stairs, sprained my ankle and fractured the navicular bone in my left foot. The fracture typically takes about six weeks to heal, so for the next month or so I’ll be getting around on crutches. In New York City, this is no easy feat–the MTA is notoriously user-unfriendly to folks with mobility issues, and I rely on it for everyday transit from my apartment in Bushwick to my job in the East Village. My commute to my day job has effectively tripled in both time and cost. (I have to take a cab from my apartment to the nearest disability-accessible subway station.)

After just two days of this exhausting grind, I already have enormous empathy for New Yorkers with both short- and long-term mobility issues. Navigating this city is, as this Vice article bluntly puts it, “a nightmare for disabled people.” Fortunately, the people in this city have been, on the whole, remarkably kind and helpful in light of my situation. But the kindness of strangers can’t fix a horribly broken system.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, I’m in surprisingly good spirits. In being forced to slow down, take it easy, and find things to do that don’t involve much walking around, I’ve run out of excuses not to write. So, welcome back! Let’s talk about Fugazi again.

“Waiting Room” is an iconic Fugazi single for a reason. In just the first few instrumental bars, the song establishes a powerful thesis statement. Joe Lally’s earworm bass line and the “tick, tick, tick” of Brendan Canty’s drum hits establish a claustrophobic groove that deftly telegraphs the song’s themes of boredom, frustration, restlessness and finally joyful defiance of the stultifying rhythms of everyday life. By the time Ian Mackaye crows, “Iiiiiyam a PATIENT boy,” his voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm, you almost already know what the song is about.

A waiting room can be a literal physical space–an orthopedist’s office, say–but in many ways, it’s also a frame of mind. The “waiting room” Mackaye describes is the realm of compliance, of simply marking time without wondering why the wait is so damn long. When Guy Picciotto urges the listener to “c’mon and GET UP,” he urges us to replace compliance with defiance and demand answers.

The waiting room is built to convince you that you’re alone in your struggle, just another patient waiting to be healed. But if you take a purely stoical approach to real problems, like, say, the fact that it takes forever and a day to get anywhere on crutches in this city, you miss out on the bigger picture: the shocking lack of disability-accessible public transit. You think that you’re the broken one, but really it’s the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the whole damn building.

So, if you can, get up and get out. Another world is possible.

30 Century Man

See the dwarfs and see the giants

Which one would you choose to be?

On Monday, my social media timeline was full of tributes to Scott Walker, who passed away over the weekend aged 76. Proper journalists have eulogized Walker far better than I could, so I’ll keep this brief.

Like a lot of people roughly my age, I discovered Walker’s music around the 2006 release of The Drift, Walker’s first studio album in over a decade, and 30 Century Man, a documentary about Walker’s career executive produced by David Bowie. Intrigued by the publicity surrounding the reclusive pop star-turned-avant-garde auteur, I began to dig in to what little of his music I could find online at the time. I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Walker’s sizable body of work, but what I do know, haunts me.

“30 Century Man” is an outlier on 1969’s Scott 3, an album largely composed of the theatrical, Jacques Brel-inspired pop Walker was known for at the time. While most of Scott 3 a jewel box of Baroque orchestral arrangements, “30 Century Man” is just a few stark blues chords strummed on an acoustic guitar and Walker’s compelling baritone. It’s a disarming moment of intimacy on an album that largely keeps its audience at arm’s length. It almost sounds like an accident, a demo that snuck on to the master recording. But, like almost everything Walker recorded, “30 Century Man” is composed, deliberate, and suffused with a sense of mystery.

Play it cool, and Saran Wrap all you can

Be a 30 century man

Like many of Walker’s songs, “30 Century Man” defies easy interpretation. It feels almost too pure to undergo the indignity of a critical interrogation. But if I had to force a reading on this odd, elliptical little song, I would say it’s about death and memory, two of Walker’s primary preoccupations. Should one go into the future clinging to the trappings of the present, ego meticulously preserved, a cryogenically frozen head in a jar? Or is it better to simply do good work, and let your art speak for itself? I think I know Walker’s answer.

fhriday fhealing: Queens of the Stone Age

This morning, like a lot of mornings, I woke up with a migraine. For the past six years or so, I’ve had what’s known as chronic migraine, a condition whereby one gets really frequent, persistent migraines for reasons no one completely understands. It’s had a huge impact on my life, personally and professionally, and it’s a big factor in why I don’t write as much as I used to. But I’m trying to turn that around, so today I’m going share my favorite album to listen to when I’m convalescing. It’s probably not on anyone else’s list of “soothing albums for hurty heads,” but for me, I swear it has healing powers.

Era Vulgaris, the fifth Queens of the Stone Age album, came out in 2007 to a mixed reception. Era was the first QOTSA album made entirely without founding band member Nick Oliveri, who was fired in 2004 under a cloud of ill will that included domestic abuse allegations (Oliveri later narrowly avoided jail time on similar charges.) The band needed a clean slate, and Era was the caustic agent to get the job done.

In a review for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield praised Era‘s hard-driving, unhinged atmosphere, “clobbering you instantly with guitars louder and uglier than a psychedelic biker party at Joshua Tree’s Skull Rock.” Era Vulgaris is a harsh, moody record littered with jagged edges. It radiates a confrontational “Are you in or out?” attitude that feels tailored to needle fans of accessible, Oliveri-penned jams like “Auto Pilot.” In album opener “Turnin on the Screw,” Homme solemnly intones, “I sound like this,” and proceeds to rip through a gnarly, atonal guitar solo that drops like a punch line.

I heard Era Vulgaris for the first time in 2017 during a particularly surreal summer, health-wise. Without going into too much detail, both my health and my mood were unusually unstable, and I was struggling to stay afloat. Casting around for whatever lifeline I could find, I landed on the kind of music that, a few years earlier, I would have dismissed as “Big Mood stadium rock.” I felt like I was fighting for my sanity, and heavy rock gave me the tools to render the invisible battle more concrete.

Pain isn’t subtle, and neither is Era Vulgaris. It’s a big, defiant “fuck you” of an album, but it’s also a “fuck me.” Take, for example, the revved-up, percussive skronk of “Battery Acid,” an excellent sonic analogue to the throbbing pain of a migraine if ever there was one. If you ask most people what the song is about, the likely answer is “drugs.” But its themes of helplessness and self-recrimination translate surprisingly well to other form of war against a malfunctioning mind:

“There’s nothing you can say / You can’t wish me away / Every masochist gets a turn / Sadistic twist- you never learn.”

When you spend a lot of time living with the excruciating but weirdly rootless pain of migraine, you start to wonder if it’s “all in your head.” There’s a creeping sense of unreality that comes with chronic pain, which defies the usual bodily laws of cause and effect. You start to doubt every decision you’ve made that led you to where you are, wondering if somehow it’s all your fault.

Homme probably wasn’t thinking about literal, physical pain when he wrote the line “I don’t care if it hurts, just so long as it’s real,” nor actual bodily frailty when he sang “I’m so goddamn sick, baby, it’s a sin.” But as a listener, you’re allowed to take from music whatever you need at the time. These were lyrics I could sing along to and mean it.

In some ways, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I have a good team of doctors, a supportive family, access to therapy, a day job and health insurance. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve been able to find medications that help quell the worst of my symptoms without triggering the kind of addictive spiral that people with chronic pain are especially vulnerable to. The trade-off is I have to live with a certain amount of pain, and pain, quite literally, sucks. Pain will suck the life out of you, if you let it. It’s easy to lose perspective and find yourself mired in despair that things will ever get better.

When you’re going through something miserable, good art can be a mirror with which to see yourself more clearly. In the brain, physical and mental pain have surprisingly similar mechanisms. Beating myself up, doubting myself, isolating myself, trying to keep my pain under wraps- these things weren’t helping me get better. Era Vulgaris helped me to recognize that.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say why music does what it does. Maybe the narrative I’ve built around Era Vulgaris doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. Maybe there’s just something about the particular timbre of Homme’s guitar that resonates deeply with my ailing brain. Some people have crystals, magnets and aromatherapy. I have Queens of the Stone Age.