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.
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.