Sunday, January 15, 2006

Down In It

Two things:
  1. I want to defend Nine Inch Nails from the criticism of this review in pitchfork magazine.
  2. I suppose I agree with said criticism.
But seriously, I hope that Pretty Hate Machine is left untouched and unchanged. It is what it is, and it is an album that means a lot to me. In 1989, I was really starting to cut my teeth on what kind of music moved me. I remember listening to nothing but this release for about a month or so. "Dated" as it may be, that is exactly why no one must go back into the studio and touch it up.

Even recently, I found an old cassette of it and played it for a few days in my car while going to work and back. And for those 30-40 minute periods of time, I was 19 years old all over again, just me, my beater on the interstate, and the music for my soul. In fact, it's my belief that while Trent Reznor has made far superior songs than those found on PHM, he has not made an album that has satisfied me as much as that debut work did. It won't be topped and we should all be at peace with that.

Now to the review from pitchfork (the best place to go for music news on the web):

Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine [TVT; 1989; r: Rykodisc; 2005] Rating: 5.6

2005 was supposed to be the phoenix-like rebirth of Trent Reznor's career, a return from his self-imposed exile to seize back his empire of angst from the acolytes who'd carried his banner during the interim. The Dolby-tricked-out re-release of his 1994 peak, The Downward Spiral, sounded the fanfare, its finely textured bursts of despair and strangely soothing hushed introspections losing little of its alternative-era whollop. But new album With Teeth vampired off this momentum, sounding disappointingly paint-by-numbers despite its success on mostly toothless modern-rock radio.

Now comes a reissue of Nine Inch Nails' introduction to the world, a move which could be perceived as another grasp at legacy rehabilitation through past-mining, were it not for Reznor's non-compliance with the release. You see, Pretty Hate Machine has been a neglected child in divorce proceedings, languishing out of print while TVT attempted to settle its affairs with assorted Mr. Potters, who eventually tried to hock it along with other parts of the label's back catalog. As such, PHM returns to your store shelves courtesy of Rykodisc, who licensed the record from that industrial figurehead, Prudential Securities-- after all, nobody says rock like The Rock.

Due to these auspicious origins, the new incarnation of Pretty Hate Machine is indistinguishable from the original: no 5.1 surround-sound, no B-side/remix sweetening, no fishnet slipcase/bonus snuff DVD deluxe packaging. Sadly, with no garish extras, there's nothing to distract from what turns out to be a horribly dated album, just as awkwardly out of step with the mid-aughts as The Downward Spiral was unexpectedly relevant.

Remastering might've spruced it up, but it's unlikely a digital touchup could keep Pretty Hate Machine from sounding tinny enough to give you that penny-taste in your mouth. Drumbeats are often industrial in the most literal sense, machinery-simulating presets stiff as prosthetics. The rest of the mix doesn't offer any escape routes, filled out as it is with paper-thin synthesizers and Reznor's echo plug-in front-and-center vocals spouting posts, the razor-guitars and stampeding drums he perfected just three years later on "Wish" completely MIA. These failings didn't sink in back when I had "Head Like a Hole" cranked up on my Discman on the school bus, but today that and others sound thin, quaint, the furthest thing from dangerous.

As a result, Pretty Hate Machine sounds less like NIN's astonishing breakthrough and more like developmental bumbling, leaving one to wonder why it was ever considered otherwise. Perhaps the album was swept up in the hypewaves generated by Reznor's famous afternoon sets at the first Lollapalooza, perhaps PHM reaped the rewards of people being late to the Wax Trax! game. And to tell the truth, it's still possible to see the early vestiges of Reznor's skillful reconfiguration of all those nasty Chicago and German sounds for pop palatability, placing the emphasis on the melody rather than the machinery. Hints at Reznor's considerable studio craft pop up more often in the second half, the breakbeats of "Kinda I Want To" momentarily enlivening the limp rhythms, "Sin" (probably NIN's most underrated and best early song) seeding the creepy brooding sensations that didn't fully bloom until the Broken EP.

But there are just too many embarrassingly distinct time-stamps of 1989-ness to ignore: the hilarious talk-rap vocals of "Down In It", that Chili Peppers poppy bass on "Sanctified", the "Goodbye Blue Sky" rip of "Something I Can Never Have". Like most self-serious music, time hasn't gone easy on the depressive couplets (fill in the rhyme!: "bow down before the one you serve...") and haunted-house keyboards of Reznor's debut, eroding away much of what must've been shocking and novel about it 17 years ago. Unlike The Downward Spiral or Broken, Pretty Hate Machine's re-release reveals the album to be an artifact, perhaps historically valuable, but as anachronistic as Napoleon in a water park.

-Rob Mitchum, January 13, 2006

No comments: