The Voice Inside My Head

  • Reading time:11 mins read

Though all of NIN kind of exists on a different level from other pop music, one could make a life’s work of studying The Downward Spiral and never come to a point where it feels like one has run dry of revelations.

To my concern, I often comment on the distinct transiness of Reznor’s music. There are really obvious moments like “The Becoming,” but there’s just this tone and perspective to so much of the emotional journey. This is extremely 2019 for Azure, for instance:

I guess there’s a certain universality in the infamous vagueness of his lyrics. You can project anything into Trent’s little trauma boxes. But through all his work there’s this regular sense of transition, of fear of one’s identity, of numbness and desperation, of one’s false persona eating one alive.

“Help me understand myself,” his music pleads. “Nothing that anyone has told me seems to fit, or make sense to me. I don’t have the tools. But—don’t look too closely, because whatever’s in there, I just know it’s horrible, it’s irredeemable. It scares me. And if you see it, then I’ll have nothing. I’ll be helpless again, and then even hope will be tarnished.”

All that’s interspersed with these moments of just, fuck it: I have nothing left to lose. I’m going to go down this rabbit hole, guide or no guide. Lifeline or not. I don’t care anymore. God help me. Whatever I truly am, I might as well find it and face up to it, even if it kills me.

There’s just this constant sense of grief and loss and despair, and disgust and horror with one’s self—of searching for any kind of a frame that makes the pieces add up in a positive way, and finding nothing but pain in the models pushed onto you by every controlling force in your life.

Again it’s all so vague, which is why he’s a successful artist. All this sounds a heck of a lot like adolescence. You get this with a general sort of heartbreak. With disability or neurodivergence-related traumas. With any sort of existential anxiety that we all experience at one time or another; any time when our ideas of ourselves don’t match up with the story that we’re fed by the world that we live in.

But like. In practice and in totality, this is such a deep, distilled, rich kind of a trauma that Reznor depicts. And it’s so thoroughly infused with these questions of identity—of reaching the end of the usefulness of the self you were handed, and of embracing the part of you that has caused you too much distress to acknowledge. It’s all about metamorphosis, of casting off the last vestiges of a humanity that does not fit and just going with whatever horrors you’ve failed to keep inside all this time. Time after time he hammers on this inability to keep masking any longer, and the death of one’s connection to an abusive world.

Nothing can stop me now
I don’t care anymore

There’s a fatalist spin here, and there’s a determined one. It’s kind of the same agency you get with body modification; that in a less healthy outlet may lead to, say, cutting behaviors (and, well, potential hesitation marks).

The Alice Glass song “Mine” angles at a similar kind of space:

Here I go again, it’s all I can do
(Let go)
So tonight I’ll take my own body
I’ll take my own, take my own mind
Abuse myself till I’m finally mine again
Finally mine again
I will go and use a ninety nine cent
Razor drawn, razor drawn line
Leave a trace till I’m finally mine again
Finally mine again

It’s not a healthy trauma response, but it’s just—claiming some kind of autonomy. Over one’s body, one’s emotions, over one’s sense of self. Even if it’s a destructive one. If you’re going to survive after everything, you need to be your own person, set your own terms.

Azure ain’t the same person who looked after her body those forty-some years before she woke up. A lot of things happened last August, all at once—but the breasts are not an insignificant one. They quickly became an anchor for my identity: this permanent, physical, obvious affirmation of who and what I am, that no one can ever take away. They became this cornerstone of body autonomy, of this general sense of self-possession that I’ve never enjoyed before.

To that end, I’m going to get my ears pierced. Sooner than later. This summer, probably. I never understood the appeal before my tits came in. Tattoos, piercings, any kind of body modification, it just—my head, it was locked in this deferential mode. “My body doesn’t belong to me,” I felt. “I don’t belong to myself. I’m not a real person.” Like, it wasn’t my right to do anything with the body, the name, the identity, the character sheet I was given. I would get in trouble. I would ruin this thing that I was handed responsibility to maintain, for someone else’s benefit. For me to tamper with it would be this inexcusable critical failure.

But it turns out that I am a real person, with all the same rights, worthy of exactly the same consideration, as anyone else. No one gets to control my body but me, and I get to make choices on what to do with it. I get to assert that control as I see fit—including decoration. Including things that serve no function beyond making me feel good. Which is an important end on its own, as it turns out.

I’m fortunate to have (rather late in life) found the tools to understand myself and to work out what I need in a reasonably healthy way. I’ve still got all this business to do, to strip out all the wrong wires and set myself right. But I’m on the path now. I think I’m going to be okay. But to have this support, to be able to interpret what’s going on inside me independent of the judgment and expectation of the world that I’m living in—that’s not a given. And it took me four decades. And not everyone has the fortune to stumble on those resources.

Heck, that neglect is mostly by design. We’re not meant to find the tools that will help us, because then we’ll no longer be prey to the system that feeds off of us and depends on our unquestioning obedience to generate all of the wealth that we’ll never ourselves see in our lifetimes. We’re not meant to have that agency, none of us—which again speaks to the universality of the sentiment in Reznor’s music. But there are degrees and nuances, right? There are colors and shades. And existential horror is one of the biggest drivers here.

Nine Inch Nails is substantially about horror, specifically through the lens of what we are presented as pure and correct and acceptable, and that is impossible to ever actually live up to. Combine that with all the sexuality and the imagery around changing bodies, and, well. It’s fucking queer, right. It’s unavoidable. Not exclusively, and I expect not deliberately, but distinctly and clearly. The queer-coding is just about blinding, and once you’re in a place to notice, you’ll never ever unsee it. You’ll only ever find further confirmation.

And among all its other strengths, The Downward Spiral is such a centerpiece for this energy. It’s all throughout Reznor’s work. From track one there’s this association between the perceived wrongness of self with monstrosity, with evil, with internalized fear on the basis of what one is told. It’s like, my very essence is an offense to all that is pure. I am an abomination by virtue of these facts of me that I have no control over but I am assured are objectively, unavoidably dangerous. This is the kind of logic that fuels anti-trans bills, that fuels hate crimes and lets them off with “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses. It’s all about fear and hatred and disgust for the intrinsic evil that lurks inside.

Then underlying that notion of casting off ties to other people’s notions of humanity and embracing the horrors within one’s self, after the catharsis there’s this constant theme of being ruined. It’s angled against a vague religious context, but more broadly against “reality”—like, the surface of the social framework one is handed. It’s this all-or-nothing thinking where taking one step away from some hypothetical light will tarnish a person forever on some fundamental level, and there is no getting that purity back. From that moment, one will never not be tainted.

That’s a damaging sort of narrative to buy into, in regard to anything. It informs stuff like the AA model to addiction therapy, to our criminal justice system, to sex, to any kind of exposure to “dangerous” ideas. It’s a social control device, that serves to tell people they are essentially bad and owe their lives to the system. It serves to demonize and scapegoat the vulnerable as symbols to other members of society rather to than actively provide the support they need to live healthy lives. And it’s what we do all the time, to basically everyone who steps over an ever-shifting imaginary line.

Again though for all its ubiquity, when you combine this dynamic with all the body horror and identity and sexual stuff, well—the overall impression is profoundly relatable to someone whose body and identity and ideas about sex are considered essentially “other,” and threatening and diseased, and horrifying and wrong.

I was never not afraid of public toilets—they’re gross and psychologically strange, and leave one feeling vulnerable in all these different ways at once—but as a transfeminine person, I’m sure as hell going to avoid them forever, to the extent I am able. I will plan around them.

Because of unavoidable elements of who and what I am, to some people I will never not be considered an existential threat. And they will use that as an excuse to hurt me, to take out all of their other unresolved traumas and resentments on a person whom they can tell themselves deserves it.

I’ve gone through most of my life knowing I was broken and disgusting and wrong, and I’m used to having that affirmed by anyone who has gotten close enough to see beyond the flimsy mask I had propped up to keep me safe from those who would call out a mob if they recognized me. I know now that this garbage doesn’t apply to me, and I know it’s all somebody else’s problem, but it still leaves me vulnerable in a lot of situations. The street harassment is bad enough, but what if I don’t brush them off before they clock that I’m transgender?

There is something about queerness that presents as a fundamental threat. Fundamentally devious. Conniving, perverse, manipulative. Decayed, revolting, evil. This narrative is so central to our experience, in relation to the world and the stories we’re told about ourselves. So for Reznor’s music explore this precise conflict, much to most of the time, it’s—it just really feels familiar, you know? Hauntingly so. This trauma isn’t a passing thing for me, just as it’s no incidental topic for Reznor. It’s not a bad year, or a bad event, or a stray misunderstanding. This is life. This is what it means to exist in the world I was handed.

I am so fortunate to now be in a place where I can love myself the way that I do. This is so miraculous to feel, and I appreciate it every single day. It was so hard to find my way here, and I’m never going to let go again. And that catharsis from Reznor’s music, over so many years, is part of how I made it here alive. Intentionally or (more likely) not, that deep and overwhelming queer coding, it helped to underline that this struggle could be in some way articulated. That it wasn’t just me who felt this way, even if I didn’t know where it was coming from. It helped to validate the pain I felt, even without any answers.

I really owe this music a lot for keeping me going, keeping me on some level sane enough, until I could find the resources I needed. And even as I heal and build a healthy relationship with and toward myself, I can’t imagine a time when the sentiments here will fail to be relevant to the basic conflicts of this identity, in this world that blames us for its own sin.

We’re In This Together Now

  • Reading time:5 mins read

When Trent Reznor sings “you,” in most cases he’s talking to the other part of himself—call him, Mr. Self Destruct. After Reznor’s own downward spiral that bottomed with a near-death experience on his Fragile tour, his 2005 album With Teeth is largely about recovery. 2013’s Hesitation Marks is about that battle’s return after an age, his musical avatar’s id reasserting itself and the struggle for control resuming with a little more self-awareness this time around.

With Teeth in particular is to me one of Reznor’s most fascinating albums. The whole thing exists in this dazed, sober limbo where Reznor seems to gaze around him, notice how much time has passed, and wonder exactly how he might function as a real person after he’s missed so much along the way.

“Only” (2005, With Teeth)

As fatuous as “Only” may be—the subsumed comedy to so many NIN songs a right up front this time—it’s also weirdly affirming as a recovery anthem. The music holds this uneven smirk while Reznor asserts that, no, that person doesn’t exist; it’s only him now. It almost needs to be as silly as it is, to undercut the drama of the old persona that he means to peel away. “No,” the song says. “You don’t get control here. I’m allowed to mock you.”

The chunky 2/4 backing serves as a loopy funhouse mirror of “Closer.” The lyrics quote “Down In It,” then twist the lyric into a reflection on his behaviors that led him to this point. Musically, Reznor seems to be taking a step back and going, “Yeah, that… that whole era of my life was pretty absurd, huh. Christ, that wasn’t me; that was never even a real person. I can’t let that affect me anymore. Well, I’m here now. It’s okay. I’m fine. I guess.”

You take Reznor’s (character’s) sort of ongoing dialogue with the other unwanted aspect of himself, and pair it with his curiously persistent themes of transformation or becoming—when I say that NIN often feels really super transy to me, this is what I mean. It’s a starting point, anyway.

“Everything” (2013, Hesitation Marks)

That concept to “Only” sort of comes back eight years later in “Everything.” This time, though, there’s a dark undertone. The assertion here—I survived everything—it’s less triumphant than it sounds. There’s a shade of denial; of pushing down that unwanted persona away as it threatens to bubble back to control—pretending it’s gone while it sits, waits.

You never really recover from mental illness or addiction, right. That’s not how it works. You just learn how to cope and manage better. The scars will always be a part of you, lurking as part of your base code. Being so incautious as to say, ha ha, I’m better now; it’s fine—you’re setting yourself up for problems.

There’s this interesting sequence to Reznor’s albums. His big opus that he’ll never live down is of course 1994’s The Downward Spiral. And that’s both the anchor and the weight that affects everything in its wake. That album has at least three direct sequels: first comes 1990’s The Fragile, then With Teeth and Hesitation Marks—each replacing the previous one and telling a slightly different story. The “Downward Spiral” theme from throughout that album keeps reemerging in odd, distorted forms as Reznor tries to escape its shadow—the seeming implication in Hesitation Marks being, for all his growth and change, he will never escape either that legacy or the damage that its story represents. There’s a part of him that will always be Mr. Self Destruct.

That push for recovery, it starts as early as “The Fragile”—weakly, helplessly, almost as a plea, as the album traces its own roller coaster of emotion. “We’re In This Together” strikes me as a particularly curious read, when you take what I say about Reznor and “you.”

“We’re In This Together” (1999, The Fragile)

Once you accept that most of Reznor’s music is about his own mental health struggles, in particular his relationship with his self—and then once you notice how very transy how much of his music feels, one gets some kind of a vibe from lyrics like “You’re the queen and i’m the king/Nothing else means anything.”

None of this of course is to impose any particular reading on Reznor himself as a person. Whatever his deal is, it’s his own deal. I’m not his therapist; I’m not in his head (thank God). I have no interest in projecting anything on a real person. I’m just noticing the way that his art hangs together, and how well it lends itself to reflect a certain set of ideas that… I guess always made an unspoken sense to me.

While I’m Still Here

  • Reading time:5 mins read

Since 2005 Nine Inch Nails has been a discussion between two characters: the man who Trent Reznor feels he is deep inside, or who he once was, or very much wants to be; and the man who he became in the 1990s. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them True Trent and Demon Trent.

His work of the last decade is a patchwork of self-rediscovery. Gone are the meticulous soundscapes and concept albums (Year Zero aside), and with them departs the familiar “Trent Reznor” character, the protagonist of self-destructive operas like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. In their place we have a mix of baffled confessional and therapy, and outward-looking projects like Year Zero and Ghosts.

Though the latter are interesting, it’s in the former that the core Nine Inch Nails narrative — by which I mean Reznor’s endless introspection — continues. To that end, let’s narrow our focus to With Teeth and The Slip.

On these albums, generally True Trent assumes the role of narrator. In songs like “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” and “Echoplex” he deals with the boredom and creeping emptiness of a sober life. While he spent a decade in a bottle, his world had moved on and left him behind. Come 2005 he was out of the darkness, older on the outside. Inside, though, where there should have been years of growth and wisdom and personal experiences, there was just a fuzzy emotional void — the space where his demon had sat, and the open portal through which it could, at any time, return.

Notice here the use of pronouns. If in these songs there is a “you”, chances are that it refers to Demon Trent. At times the switch flips, and Demon Trent takes charge of “I”, with True Trent demoted to “you”. Depending on the song this interplay can be playful, or earnest, or frustrated, or defeated. The discussion is possibly at is most obvious in “Only”, itself a dry parody, or 2005 revamp, of “Down In It”:

I just made you up to hurt myself, yeah
And I just made you up to hurt myself
And it worked.
Yes it did!

There is no you
There is only me
There is no you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me

It is in this context that Hesitation Marks operates as an album. Take the character from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile (with his accordingly lavish soundscape), and filter him through the themes of With Teeth, and you have the basic story.

The album began as a pair of tracks — the initially-baffling “Everything”, and the hip-hop influenced “Satellite” — for a long-delayed “best of” record; according to Reznor, everything else grew out of that material. If you consider the basic discussion of modern-day Nine Inch Nails, that totally makes sense.

“Everything” is a cry of incautious, (as Reznor put it) arrogant victory. “I survived everything”, he sings in the verse. “Wave goodbye / wish me well / I’ve become something else”. But then the strange, dissonant chorus hits — and under all the noise we get a different story. “But this thing that lives inside of me / will surely rise and wake”.

This is the nature of addiction, especially over as long a period as Reznor suffered; it never leaves you, and in its absence one needs an exhausting, constant vigilance. Let down your guard for a moment, and you relapse, and you’re back where you started.

Indeed, after that show of arrogance, in the very next track Reznor switches characters:

satellite
I’m watching you
I’m one step ahead
satellite
I’m part of you
I’m inside your head

This interplay forms the basic story of the album. Years later, the man from those earlier albums returns. He makes an earnest effort to shed his demons and reclaim ownership over himself. For a while he seems to make progress. Yet what he fails to understand is that his demons will never, ever go away. He will never win, not entirely. If he chooses to fight, then the fight will be forever.

I’ve got to let it go
I’ve got to get straight
why’d you have to make it so hard
let me get away

One of the intriguing and frustrating elements is that it can be very difficult to tell who is speaking any given line. Some songs seem to be a call and response between the two Trents, while others are entirely one or the other. As part of this structure there is actually a little sympathy for Demon Trent. He’s just doing what he does, and doesn’t totally understand why True Trent is rejecting him.

There are some ups and downs. “All Time Low” seems to be about Demon Trent’s attempts to seduce Real Trent. “In Two” is about a drastic measure that Real Trent takes to cleanse himself. In the end it is unclear quite what happens. It appears that our man’s energy runs out, and he is unable to maintain the fight — though which man can we assume is speaking?

Only thing I’ve ever done
Closest I have ever come
Oh so tired on my own
Best days I have ever known

Apparently as he sings “the world” ends… and as it burns he continues to hang on, watching, reflecting.

well I don’t mind
I’m ok
wish it didn’t have to end this way

As the world roars and fades into oblivion, we hear someone honking playfully on a baritone sax. If the voice we’re listening to is True Trent, the sense that we get is, well, at least he tried. If this is goodbye, then it is a gentle one. He understands the situation and what he’s up against, and for all of his regrets he has accepted defeat. At least, for now.

Copy Of A

  • Reading time:5 mins read

On first impression I really, really like Hesitation Marks. It’s about as sophisticated an album as Reznor has put out — musically, lyrically, structurally, thematically. He is maturing, yet this isn’t old man music. Whereas the new Van Halen album basically sounds like the band trying to recapture its old sound and vitality (using songs written some 35 years ago), this is the sound of a man with a history coming to terms with the present.

This is not an album that I could have known I wanted to hear. Whereas the singles felt stuck in a groove, on the full album the only hint of complacency comes in those nods to NIN’s past.

The lead single, “Came Back Haunted”, is the safest — possibly on purpose. Production aside, Thom Moyles compared the song to “The Perfect Drug” — one of Reznor’s glossiest and most disposable tracks, and also possibly the most raw example of his songwriting template. Similarly, “Came Back Haunted” is as generic a NIN anthem as I can imagine. It seems to deliver a precise focus tested example of an exciting new Nine Inch Nails song.

Of course there is probably more here than there seems. The title carries layers of meaning, from the public return of Nine Inch Nails to the broader theme of revisitation in a new context. To that end the ending vamp, its guitar motif distorted and borrowed from The Downward Spiral (thanks again to Mr. Moyles), is the album’s clearest reference to history (and perhaps old narrative threads).

Each in its own way, the singles all sound like they are trying to sound like Nine Inch Nails. “Haunted” is a lesser echo of the past. “Copy of A” sounds like exactly what I would expect from NIN in 2013. “Everything” is conspicuously anti-NIN. The whole reason it seems to exist is to play against expectation, which in turn leaves an echo of its opposite.

None of these songs is at all poor, and I quite liked the variety from one song to the next. On the basis of the singles I expected something familiar yet colorful. Yet by the same logic, on some level they all… kind of bored me.

To my relief, the rest of the album is a new thing — and a thing that really excites me. It has such energy and tension.

I keep liking different things. Tracks that swept under my radar suddenly become the best thing on the album. At some point over the last two days, each song has become one of my favorite ever NIN tracks.

More than the songs, the whole production feels… big. Momentous. Important. Here I am, I think. I’m listening to this when it’s new, before everyone in the world has analyzed it to death, before it becomes a landmark album. This is still the confusion phase, where people will wonder what this… is, and why Reznor chose to call it a Nine Inch Nails album. I find myself wondering what it was like to hear Pet Sounds in May 1966. It must have been more dramatic, but I imagine it was kind of like this.

Right now, I just think this is such an amazing album. With hindsight it all feels so obvious. Of course this is what he would release in 2013, and of course this is how you move forward as a person and an artist, while lugging 25 years of musical baggage. Somehow as Reznor gets older he only seems to get more vital and current — and his music only ever gets more truthful.

I’m not sure what my reaction says for longevity, as most things that stick with me take a while to dig under my skin. It could be that I’m just bowled over by the newness, and by my flaunted expectations. If nothing else, this album is full of great, fresh material.

Some observations:

The majority of the tracks are over five minutes long. Generally at around the three or four minute mark each seems to reach its natural conclusion. Then it… well, comes back haunted. HEY, it says. I’M STILL HERE. LET’S GO AROUND A FEW MORE TIMES. Around here I notice that I start to tune out. The next thing I know, I’m in the middle of a new song and I feel like I’ve missed something. I go back and I think, hey, this song is great too! Then the cycle repeats itself.

I don’t know if I’m just listening wrong. My life is busy these days, and it’s hard to give music my full attention. I need to focus to really wrap my head around the structure.

Also… man, if I didn’t know Reznor liked Bowie… I’d know it.

In recent interview Reznor keeps mentioning David Byrne; how Remain in Light changed his idea of what recorded music could be, and how he was modeling his new tour after Stop Making Sense. I hear it in here. This whole thing does have the energy and flow of that movie. In particular, “Running” could hardly be more Talking Heads.

Here’s a… thing. Try putting “While I’m Still Here” on a loop. See how that goes. Intentional? Who knows.

Eater of Dreams — is this meant to sound like medical support equipment? Or, perhaps, a satellite?

“All Time Low” is more like an all-time high. “Running” is also amazing, on a more subtle level.

That saxophone section to “While I’m Still Here” — did Reznor play that himself? I seem to remember he used to be a sax player.

Also, the remixes are splendid in a way we haven’t seen since… well, The Perfect Drug EP. But really, Further Down The Spiral.

An old way to vent a muse

  • Reading time:6 mins read

(Reposted from Twitter, to clear up my feed a bit.)

The Fragile, love it as I do, was Reznor trying too hard. With Teeth is the response to that. There he deliberately lets go and runs with it. It’s exactly the opposite album. Interesting thing is, those are my two favorite of his albums. One despite its flaws, the other because of.

“The Day The World Went Away”… why is this on here? Why is it the lead single? Same for “Starfuckers, Inc.”. Disc 1 is full of nonsense. But then you get brilliance like “The Great Below”, “The Wretched”, and most of the instrumentals. Some of the best stuff he’s ever done.

It’s interesting that once Reznor chose not to kill himself trying he managed four albums in three years. As opposed to fifteen years. Granted I’m not hot on most of Year Zero and I still think The Slip is a collection of scraps. And the style is very samey over this period.

I kind of lump it all together as one era, with its ups and downs. Of that era, With Teeth is the lead attraction. The rest is extra. Doesn’t hurt that impression that the latter two albums each cost five bucks, and just appeared like magic within months of each other. And the second album was deliberately leaked in full (though in a different version) as part of its promotional ARG thing. So again, extra. The thing is, all of that stuff — it sounds like he had fun doing it. So even where it doesn’t do much for me, it’s hard to begrudge.

The only thing that gets me is this weird consensus that arose that The Slip is one of the best things he ever recorded. Which… it’s not. When it came out, I took it as a blog post of an album: unexpected, cheap, immediate. A new kind of a thing. A new way to vent a muse. I figured he’d release one of these every so often, when he had something to say. I thought that was sort of interesting. But as an album?

There’s also this weird thing of totally missing the self-effacing humor and confession of the more interesting songs on there. Like, “Discipline”? It’s using old NIN language as an ironic framework to say, “Actually, I admit my head isn’t working right. So now what?” It’s the most obvious thing in the world. I don’t think I’ve seen this acknowledged. Every review is all, “YEAH HE’S ALL RAUNCHY AGAIN!”

So I don’t really know what’s going on with the way people respond to that album. Then, I seem to be out of touch with most things.

(In response to some concerns about the quality of the last ten years — Hesitation Marks included — and the suggestion that The Fragile’s glow had dimmed over the years:)

What interests me about the 2005-2008 era is its unprecedented sincerity and intimacy, and how that aligns with Reznor’s story. Reznor almost died on the Fragile tour. He was a wreck. His life hit bottom. So he cleaned up and took a step back to look at himself. The music became therapeutic and took on the tone of a diary — the diary of a screwed-up person who was really trying to get better. So you get songs like “Every Day is Exactly the Same” and “Echoplex”, about that raw, numb sober emptiness. And the satire of “Only”. In place of theatrical rage and self-loathing (which had grown affected) the music becomes sad, playful, lost, brave, and earnest.

Mind you, despite the affected bits, The Fragile is still tied for my favorite of his albums. There’s just so much good in there. And The Downward Spiral is kind of beyond discussion or measure, really. It’s just one of the most important albums ever recorded. It is what it is.

The last decade is the era where he starts to care about things outside himself. He gets active politically. He gets married and has kids. And you can hear that expansiveness in the music. You can hear this rush of air as he unseals the vault and tries to breathe again. So that biographical element — it’s impossible for me to ignore, and with it in mind the music takes on more meaning than it might.

As for Hesitation Marks… yeah, I can hear where he is mentally, already. It seems just as sincere, but with more lavish attention. So although I don’t know how the whole thing will turn out, it’s already exciting me as another chapter in The Trent Reznor Story. It’s like Game of Thrones or The Wire or something. Each album is only part of the tale, and the sum is more than the parts. So far I’m getting the best of early and later NIN, for my tastes — the self-awareness, plus the ambition. But we’ll see, I guess!

(In response to comments about the lavish engineering on TDS and The Fragile, and its absence on the 2000s material:)

That’s all totally true, and I agree with it. The engineering in his 1990s stuff boggles the mind. I still always find new things. I’ll throw Broken in there as a prototype, as well. I’ve never heard anything else like his 1990s material, in that respect. By contrast, With Teeth is almost like a new version of PHM: stripped down, bare, almost primitive. A totally different approach. He recorded it mostly by himself on a laptop, and you can tell. The thing is, to me that suits the raw, confessional tone of it.

Rather than trying to dazzle with production, he’s trying to be honest with himself and making a real effort at straight composition. The results are often clumsy and stark — they sound more like demos than tracks off of a finished album. But that works in context. Where it gets a little old is that his next three albums have the exact same approach.

It was nice to see him experiment conceptually. Hey, concept album about politics and the end of the world. All-instrumental opus. And I guess if he’d spent all of his time layering and getting things perfect he wouldn’t have moved on and explored so much. But that sound really didn’t bear lasting for more than one album. After four albums I miss the old studio wizardry that defined NIN.

With Hesitation Marks, I’m getting a sense that this element is somewhat making its return. Layers, variety, confession, composition. I don’t know if I’m just projecting and hearing what I want to hear, and making of it what I want to make, but it feels… matured. Like the culmination of the things that he’s been doing well over the years — while still experimenting with bold, wacky nonsense.

The Only Time

  • Reading time:3 mins read

I’ve gone over this before; the remastered Pretty Hate Machine is nice, if a little underwhelming after the special edition of The Downward Spiral. The lack of any special content aside from NIN’s cover of “Get Down Make Love” (previously available on the “Sin” single) is a little disappointing, but would be fine if the new mix were a clear improvement. The problem is that although its tracks are a little clearer than before, perhaps EQed a little better, the 2010 album comes from the twenty-first century school of mastering — which is to say, “louder is better“. Everything is compressed to the upper registers, so we lose all of the old dynamic range and the vocal tracks are now often overwhelmed by the backing.

This is unfortunate, and you’d think that Trent Reznor would know better, but it’s sort of a fact of modern studio engineering. Whatever. What I’m noticing, which I have noticed before but I’m noticing again now, is the peculiar effect of this new mastering — which is to say, the better tracks get noisy and hard to listen to, but the weaker tracks — some of them runners up for Trent Reznor’s worst ever — come out much improved. And the damnedest thing is that it’s hard for me to narrow down why.

“The Only Time” should by all reasonable extremes be the worst song on the album — except its misjudged weirdness elevates it beyond “That’s What I Get”. Now? I… kind of like it. It’s certainly easier on the ears than most of the album, and now its weirdness has a certain charm that it lacked. Again, I don’t know what’s different aside from the compressed dynamic range. It’s hard to do an A/B comparison. It’s still a stupid song, but it has become enjoyably dumb.

“That’s What I Get” will forever be Reznor’s most pointless album track, but again it lives a little more than before — as does “Ringfinger”, which to my ear will always be a limp reworking of his perhaps too-saucy-for-1989 “Twist”.

I have always thought that the mixes on Pretty Hate Machine were the most anemic of all known versions of those songs. The single mix of “Sin” is so much richer, so much better in every way — as are most of the early mixes of “Down In It”, “Sanctified”, and the joyously vague “Kinda I Want To”, which in a discussion with our Amandeep Jutla I once paraphrased as “I want to do something transgressive! And I feel ambivalent about that!” In order to make all of this material sit together and sound sufficiently gloomy, someone knocked off most of the individual edges.

This may in part explain why I’m not too bothered by the new master. The songs that it degrades mostly sound better elsewhere, and the songs that it improves have never sounded so good.

Also, the packaging.

BE A PATRIOT – BE AN INFORMER!

  • Reading time:2 mins read

So a week ago I got my hard copy of The Slip. Almost pointless, except for posterity, yet it is nice to have on the shelf. And it’s a limited edition. (I’m #48,960/250,000.)

With that in hand, I ordered the rest of the recent NIN stuff I hadn’t bought — Year Zero, Y34RZ3R0REM1X3D, Ghosts I-IV. I did pay for the download of Ghosts, back when; again, though, hard copy. That all arrived today, and I notice he’s using the same packaging for everything now. Which is interesting. He must have gotten the digipaks in bulk.

Furthermore… well, his latest three halos, in order:

  • Halo 25: Two discs. Left disc, music; right disc, Garageband files. (This was just before remix.nin.com.)
  • Halo 26: Two discs, both music.
  • Halo 27: Two discs. Left disc, music; right disc, DVD of rehearsals.

I see a pattern forming. Will his next album come with an Xbox game?

Something else hilarious. Up until With Teeth — maybe and probably starting with the leading single, The Hand That Feeds; I don’t have a copy, because none of the singles after The Perfect Drug have been worth it — you have Trent’s standard, hugely elaborate packaging, plus the standard parental warnings and publisher copyright info and vague threats about unauthorized reproduction and whatever.

With Teeth era: really simple packaging, and huge, fugly, obnoxious FBI warnings all over the back cover, that imply anyone who buys the album is a potential criminal.

That’s not from a NIN album; the With Teeth ones are far uglier. They’re just a painfully incompetent piece of graphic design. On Year Zero, that’s still there, if a bit more polished (so it looks like a negative image of the above) — and so is an even bigger parody warning, right next to it, in the same style.

And the disc uses heat-sensitive paint, so your fingerprints are clearly left behind.

After R3M1X3D, Trent is free from his contract, and the album backs… well, here’s what they say:

©2008 NIN
Manufactured and Distributed
in The United States by
RED Distribution, LLC.
79 Fifth Ave, 15th Fl
NYC10003

And there’s a bar code. Then in the back of the booklet, there’s a note that everything is Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial Share Alike. There’s a link to explain what that means. And again, “©2008 NIN”. And that’s it.

With Teeth

  • Reading time:12 mins read

It’s not the most popular of his albums, but lately I’m finding that I enjoy it the best of the bunch. Though, uh. Taking a closer look at the lyrics… well, it’s interesting that this would be the case.

As grasping and inelegant as Trent Reznor usually is, somehow there’s usually a parallel between what he’s going through and where I am in my own life. Which may explain why I have such trouble listening to his stuff that came out when I was in high school. Anyway, there’s a sincerity that makes up for the clumsiness. And he is getting better at expressing himself.

Note that “The Hand that Feeds” is about George Bush, and as such it’s… a little out-of-place.

Now I’m Down In It

  • Reading time:2 mins read

Amandeep: wait so
isn’t “kinda i want to” sort of uh
specifically about being gay
Me: Is it?
Amandeep: this just occurred to me
Me: Wait, let me take a look at this.
Amandeep: i’m not sure of what i should do.
when every thought i’m thinking of is you.
all of my excuses turn to lies.
maybe God will cover up his eyes
Me: Okay. Yeah, there’s some ambiguity about the pronouns and the exact naure of his transgression.
The simplest reading is… well, it’s an early version of Closer.
Actually.
From across the way?
Is he some kind of weird Rear Window stalker?
Amandeep: i mean, the thing is that there are all these weird FORBIDDEN LOVE kind of overtones
Me: Sitting alone in his apartment, lusting after some woman across the way?
It’s really ambiguous.
Amandeep:
actually
this could be from the perspective of like
a rapist or something
Me: Yeah.
Amandeep: which is a much creepier reading
but seems equally valid
Me: Stalker-rapist.
Amandeep: what’s the price i pay.
i don’t care what they say.
i want to.
Me: Man.
Yeah.
I actually like that interpretation.
Though the gay one is interesting.
This is such an open-ended song.
“I want to do something transgressive! And I feel ambivalent about that!”
So many possibilities!
Amandeep: hahaha
“I want to do something transgressive! And I feel ambivalent about that!”
Me: So let’s assume the stalker-rapist interpretation for the moment.
Me: Now consider the early version of the song.
Amandeep: yeah
Sent at 4:40 PM on Thursday
Me: That’s kind of a brilliant combination.
I’m going to just assume that’s what the song is about, specifically because that’s the original arrangement.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Stupid

  • Reading time:4 mins read

I don’t consider myself a gamer. Then again, I suppose I don’t “game” so much as I… play videogames, sometimes.

If my distance sounds disingenuous… well, sometimes it is, a little. There is, however, a difference between having something in your life and building your life around that thing. Videogames fascinate me, and I spend a good deal of time thinking about them on an abstract level. I’ve thought enough about them to make some money based on those thoughts. Sometimes I play them, a little, when I’ve nothing better to do. I don’t feel it’s got much, if anything, to do with my personal identity, though. It’s just something that’s there, in my life.

And I think that’s an important distinction. Most videogames currently cater to “gamers” — a label that suggests that they use videogames to give themselves identity on some level. And, well, that just explains everything, doesn’t it. Aversion to change, in particular.

A person doesn’t need to have that ego attachment to enjoy a videogame any more than I need to tattoo Trent Reznor’s name on my thigh to enjoy Nine Inch Nails. Or even to analyze his music on a deeper level, sometimes. Likewise, I don’t need to spend my life in the cinema to enjoy Orson Welles and appreciate the significance of his work.

That is, to an extent, what Nintendo’s going after now: trying to make videogames accessible to people who don’t necessarily want to base their lives around them — which, at present, videogames really aren’t much. The “casual game” sector, and the success of cell phone games, proves that there’s some headway to be made here. I think that whole subsection of the industry is a little misdirected (and frankly a little patronizing), though.

I’m reminded of a recent post by Matt McIrvin about the Wikipedia science community, in particular advanced physics — about how the people editing don’t know how to write at all and keep skewing articles toward the most inclusive, precise, elaborate definitions possible. McIrvin keeps trying to smooth out the language, to make more accessible analogies, and to winnow out the superfluous material so as to make the pages readable and the information comprehensible to someone with, at best, only a slight existing understanding of the material. And even then he often gets complaints from casual readers that the articles are impenetrable.

Addressing this doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down the material; it just means stepping back and detaching yourself from it enough to understand the context and what’s actually useful. There is a place for insider science writing, and that’s in academic science journals. There is a place for “gamer games”, and the Wii completely supports them. Just as important, though, is making the information available on a certain practical level to anyone who might express an interest.

How often have you handed a controller to, say, a parent who expressed some interest in what you were doing, only for him to hand it back in frustration when he couldn’t make sense of what he was doing; couldn’t coordinate his hands, was overwhelmed with all of the buttons and their seemingly random effects? The interest is there; anyone can be interested in anything. The problem is addressing that interest and drawing it into full-fledged involvement, for the time spent with a videogame — rather than simply assuming an existing level of exposure and a certain set of preconceptions.

Though I have that exposure, I don’t really feel I go into videogames from the perspective of someone looking for a videogame to play; I’m looking for something on a more human level, to maybe contribute something to my life for the time I spend playing. That might be an abstract intellectual observation, as in the game systems of a Treasure game, or it might be emotionally-based, as in Silent Hill. I don’t play videogames simply because they’re videogames, though. I don’t at all care about videogames for their own sake; I’m only interested in what they can do for me. I mostly stick around because I see the potential bubbling away, for them to tell me something really interesting that I didn’t know before.

I think that’s pretty close to the definition of a non-gamer. And I think it’s pretty close to the stance of your housemom or random schmoe. Which is why I think, should videogames come closer to achieving that goal, they will find a much wider audience than they currently do.

Five That Didn’t Fall

  • Reading time:53 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.

A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.

This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.

The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more.

Texas Gunfire

  • Reading time:7 mins read

Doom is very different in philosophy and design from modern FP shooters.

Doom is built like a console game. Heck, Romero idolizes Miyamoto. Commander Keen came out of a demo that he and Carmack whipped up for Nintendo, showing how to implement the scrolling from Super Mario Bros. on a PC (which, I guess, was a feat at the time). Howard Lincoln yawned. The Texans made their own game.

Quake is, indeed, more the prototype for the modern shooter. It’s also kind of boring in comparison — at least, for me. Here they paid less attention to actual design; more to just getting a 3D engine up. That, and getting Trent Reznor involved. I mean, they already had a template with Wolf3D and Doom. Quake was just technology. They filled in the blanks with gray textures and asinine Lovecraft references. It feels like they were bored, doing it — as well they should have been, I guess, since that’s not what they cared about anymore. And this was about where Romero started to flake out, too. Whether the rise of Superprogrammer was the cause or result of this, I don’t know.

Doom isn’t concerned with being a first-person shooter as-such, since the genre didn’t exist at the time. Instead, it is an attempt to rework the rather barren Wolf3D into as vibrant a design as possible. To do something substantial with the concept, if you will. It’s kind of the same leap as from Quake to Half-Life, because it’s the same mentality at work.

Doom’s console sensibility extends from its controls (as with Wolf3D, it’s made to be played without a mouse; the mouse only really enters when you have a Z axis to worry about) to its level design and (as someone noted) pacing, to its monster designs, to its set pieces and its idea of secret areas and items.

For one, the game just drools charisma. We all can rattle off most of the monsters in Super Mario Bros. and Zelda. We know Brinstar like the backs of our hands. There is a certain iconography even to the level design: even if on a cursory glance it might not stand out as anything special, it bores into the consciousness just as well as a cheep-cheep or a zoomer. Everything is placed preciously, exactly because there is no template to fall back on.

And, as we know, there is a certain subconscious pacing built in, for how the game introduces concepts. You run to the right, jump up and hit the flashing object overhead. It makes a chime sound and a coin pops out. You’ve clearly done something well. You hit another block and a mushroom appears. It must not be harmful, unlike the enemy you either ran into, jumped on, or jumped over a moment before, as it comes out of a block like the one which rewarded you with a chime a moment before. When you touch it, you grow. Since you’re bigger, you can more easily reach the platforms above you. You try jumping and can break the bricks. Keep going right and you hit a pipe. Then two enemies. Eventually a pit. Then a fire flower. Then a koopa troopa.

And. So on. It all sounds simple, yet so few people get it right. And since it’s supposed to be invisible, so few people notice on a conscious level when it’s missing.

Doom does this, yes, on a mechanical level. Yet it does something else, too. It paces the atmosphere. I maintain that the best part of Doom is episode one (the Shareware episode) of Doom 1. After you leave the manmade environments, where something has gone really awfully wrong, and enter the abstract flesh-tents of Hell, the game has pretty much blown its wad (pun very much intended). Then the game just becomes about shooting, and I don’t much care for it. Episode one has a certain stress to it, however. You wander the station, looking for something to restore your ailing health. The lights go out. You hear snarls in the distance. You know something’s out there — but where?

And then there are just so many hidden passages. You never know what wall might open, and how. Or what you might find (like the Chainsaw). It’s kind of like Zelda, again. Often you can see things in the distance, or through windows, that you just plain can’t access through normal means. This gets you exploring.

The whole mindset that the game creates, with all of this — the mindset that it asks for — is different. It’s more introverted. More careful. The game is as much about exploration and generally owning the gameworld as it is about blowing shit up.

There’s a certain balance here, from level to level. Just study how things are laid out. It’s no mistake that the shareware episode is the best; after all, it’s the one that id needed to be good, if anyone was going to register.

>How would you say the modern FPS has deviated from this Doom mindset? And starting where, exactly? Doom II? Duke Nukem 3D? Quake?

I don’t know. I became disgusted with the whole degenre around the time of Q3 and UT. I like what I’ve seen about HL2, from this distance. It reminds me of, uh, Myst.

Quake’s probably a good place to start. Or maybe you could begin with all of the knockoffs of Wolf3D and Doom, which used the same engine yet didn’t do anything interesting with it. They helped to pollute the mindspace a bit, I bet, and distract from the reasons why Doom was as excellent as it was.

Quake’s the landmark, though, for all the obvious reasons. I mean, it led the way, from Quake to Quake II to Quake III, to a technology-oriented philosophy. It doesn’t matter what you do with the engine; it just matters what the engine does. Throw in a few rules and some network code, and you have a game.

I’m oversimplifying to an insulting degree, I realize. On the one hand, the whole multiplayer thing, although it appeals to me in NEGATIVE INCREMENTS, meaning a piece of me dies every time the subject comes up, has attained something of the same distinction that a versus fighter has in comparison to a sidescrolling brawler. It’s a place to show skill and piss on other people (even more so than with a fighter, for various reasons), and if that’s your kind of thing, there are a lot of excellent games to help you vent that testosterone.

On the other, you have the Half-Life-inspired movement toward using the form for a more holistic experience — expanding on exactly the part of Doom that the Quake thread gave up on. Halo sits on this end, mostly — though a little more to the right, toward Quake, than HL. If you were to count Metroid Prime as a FPS, it would be about as far to the left as possible.

>Masters of Doom says that Quake’s formative years were sort of the epitome of development hell. […] Carmack was going off into his abstract, workaholic computer world and Romero was becoming increasingly arrogant and was slacking off more than usual. The end result, then, was a Doom clone where the engine was designed independently of the levels, which were designed independently of each other, which is why they’re so goddamned bizzare and incongruous.

Yeah! I remember that, now. I guess that’s whence came Daikatana.

For my part, I did enjoy Quake at the time. It’s not half-bad. It’s just — it leaves me empty.

Fragility

  • Reading time:1 mins read

Agh! Ah! ho, ho, ho! ooo! hah! oh, my. Yes. Oh, jeez. This is incredible. The Fragile, I mean — eek. Holy…

The downward spiral and this album are a mobius strip. The Fragile succeeds amazingly in breaking from the “nin formula” and exploring new territory, the occasional subtle reference thrown in to what has come before. It begins where TDS left off, with some gradual recovery, followed by a re-breakdown of sorts. Finally, there’s a very ominous ending, as at the end of a fatalistic movie, bringing the listener back to the beginning of TDS again.

I swear I’ve never heard anything like this. Chamber music about the nature of futility.

I’m… shivering.

Dream Date

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Trent Reznor appeared twice last night on Mtv — I tolerated the channel long enough to tape both performances, as well as any few Janeane Garofolo frames which popped up in between (hey, the tape was already in there) and the three or four Dreamcast commercials which aired.

The interview: Kurt Loder asked him about all of the background vocals on the album, and Trent explained that when they were working on the thing, at 12:00 at night, they’d just go across to the local bar and grab a bunch of drunk guys to yell and mumble into the microphones, creating an atonal mess.

“We assembled what I think is the most atonal group of females I’ve ever heard… I hope… they aren’t… they’re not watching this now, but they were… comically horrendous.”

David Bowie showed up, and gave quite a dignified speech. Janine Garofolo, as mentioned, was perpetually around. And the crowd was insane during Trent’s performance — just from the shouting, you’d think it’d be the Beatles playing. It was really kind of hard to hear the song, and the band weren’t entirely in sync, it seemed — like they only started practicing a week or two before. But all in all, it fell together pretty well.

The band, when they finally showed up, two and a half hours or so into the show, were introduced by Johnny Depp — though he didn’t give much of an intro. He was introduced by Chris Rock along with a mention of his appearance in the new Tim Burton movie. Immediately I guessed he was showing up to introduce nin — why else shove him out there? But all he did was stalk out on stage, say something to the effect of “here are nine inch nails,” and then immediately leave. huh.

Nin played what I presume to be “the fragile” — it didn’t sound too bad, from what I could tell. Trent seemed kinda’ nervous. Forgot the lyrics near the beginning and started laughing, but recovered, sorta’. Interesting setup, with large metal arms opening and closing around the band, zig-zags of flourescent lights affixed to their undersides. Lots of cellos and things in the background.

The Fragile (the song) is mostly a kinda’ quiet bit; about halfway through, at least in the live version, things started to get a bit tedious. I think Trent forgot the lyrics to a section altogether; he seemed to be getting a bit flustered; the music was getting softer, and the crowd was getting noisier. Plus it was an attempted live recreation — So it’s hard to tell.

These are the lyrics, to the best I can figure [and here are the correct ones]:

The Real Thing

  • Reading time:1 mins read

My word — Trent’s new single is… accessible. It sounds at once more pop-metally than I’d ever associate with nin (other than in the PHM era) and portentous of something “important.” I’m really curious, now, about The Fragile.

Strictly on an associative standpoint, it almost sounds like Trent is playing Faith No More songs and being produced by Richard D. James — although I mean this in a better way than it sounds.

I like the splendid, ironic bitterness in Starfuckers, Inc., now that it’s actually sunk in. Hehe — he plays the part well, too. I was wondering why the heck he did put the Carly Simon reference in there. I missed entirely his sarcastic tone.

Hehe — probably his most obviously “political” song. It’s hilariously, bluntly witty, when I read the lyrics.

Hi, there.