Every now and then, natural selection throws out someone who is destined for greatness. Who is gifted with a particular talent that resonates around the globe and changes people’s perceptions. Whose imagination is unrivalled, and who has the talent to bring new ideas into reality. A treasure within contemporary music, Trent Reznor has made an indelible impression, and his unique worldview can be found in any one of the best Nine Inch Nails songs – of which there are, of course, many.
The Cleveland, Ohio, native has repeatedly eclipsed convention, fulfilling his role as the mastermind behind the award-winning Nine Inch Nails legacy, all the while existing as an elusive ambassador for entrepreneurial free-thinking across an array of roles including producer, songwriter and instrumentalist.
Founding Nine Inch Nails in 1988, Reznor’s concept for the group was loosely based on a darker subgenre of experimental music, as found on the Nettwerk and Wax Trax! labels, and pioneered by the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Ministry, Gary Newman, Pere Ubu and Australian post-punk avant-garde outfit Foetus. Technological advancements allowed Reznor to express himself without having to rely on other musicians. Introducing electronica into industrial music resulted in a dramatic change within what was then a predominantly underground industrial scene, and the best Nine Inch Nails songs from this era laid the formidable blueprint for any band that set out to achieve sonic annihilation with a combination of angst and sampler technology.
Following his parents’ divorce, Reznor moved to Cleveland, where he played in several bands and worked a multitude of jobs until he eventually found work as an assistant engineer at Right Track Studios. It was there that Reznor opened his Pandora’s box of ideas and began recording Nine Inch Nails’ revolutionary debut, Pretty Hate Machine, thanks to an agreement with the studio’s owner, who allowed Reznor to work after hours on his own material.
Released in 1989, Pretty Hate Machine spewed forth an unrelenting whirr of snarling drum samples and heavy-handed electronic arrangements. Like the bastard child of disco and punk, Nine Inch Nails grabbed the mainstream by the neck and refused to let go, offering a collection of dark, menacing tracks that were sometimes loaded with derogatory, vile lyrical content considered particularly taboo during the late 80s. This self-released debut contained instant game-changers which still number among the best Nine Inch Nails songs, among them ‘Head Like A Hole’ and ‘Down In It’: songs that earned Reznor heavy rotation on MTV, appearances at Lollapalooza and opening slots for Guns N’ Roses on their 1991 European tour.
Though Pretty Hate Machine is one of a few independent releases to reach Platinum status on the Billboard chart, the album was a rough diamond compared to the masterful production found on Reznor’s subsequent releases.
Soon signing to major label Interscope, Reznor recorded the Broken EP, released, in agreement with the label, though his own Nothing imprint. A more focused attempt to harness the true essence of Nine Inch Nails, Broken featured production from Mark “Flood” Ellis (who also provided engineering and production work on Pretty Hate Machine) and Adrian Sherwood, and saw Reznor deliver a more focused take on the Nine Inch Nails concept. Tracks such as ‘Wish’ and ‘Happiness In Slavery’ stand out among the best Nine Inch Nails songs, dripping with ear-splitting guitars, screaming vocals and beautiful orchestral interludes, making the Broken EP the perfect transition from Nine Inch Nails the underground heroes to Nine Inch Nails the burning-hot global icons.
By 1994, Nine Inch Nails had become one of the most talked-about bands on the planet, and on 8 March they released the hugely anticipated The Downward Spiral. Not only considered to be the quintessential Nine Inch Nails album, it also brought the true breadth of Reznor’s capabilities to light across a majestic collection of 14 tracks that cohered into a clear, driven artistic statement.
Though albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero and Soundgarden’s Superunknown brought cathartic, emotionally raw music into the charts, The Downward Spiral led listeners to far more disturbing places. Singles ‘March Of The Pigs’ and the sexually deviant ‘Closer’ left a peculiarly addictive taste in the mouths of a generation for whom mainstream pop culture was represented by hit sitcom Friends and the fuzzy, warm ramblings of Counting Crows or Hootie And The Blowfish. Also housing the heartbreaking anthem that is ‘Hurt’ – not only one of the best Nine Inch Nails songs of all time, but an instant classic that would later be covered by the late country icon Johnny Cash – The Downward Spiral set Nine Inch Nails on a course for global stardom and Platinum sales.
Recorded in the infamous house where Hollywood actress Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson’s gang back in 1969, The Downward Spiral was about as dark as music got during the 90s. The balance of infectious melodies and eerie dark compositions provided a spectacular glimpse inside the mind of Trent Reznor, who, instead of basking in the success of the album, continued to tour and write new songs for what would become the band’s third studio album.
Now with the world’s eyes fixed on all things Nine Inch Nails, Reznor threw himself into pre-production for his next opus. To break the gap between albums, a small collection of remixes emerged in 1995, Further Down The Spiral, which pacified Reznor’s burgeoning fanbase, and he also worked on writing film scores for Oliver Stone’s controversial Natural Born Killers and David Lynch’s bizarre Lost Highway, both of which featured exclusive Nine Inch Nails tracks (‘Burn’ and ‘The Perfect Drug’, respectively).
As the millennium came to a close, the mesmerising double-album The Fragile was released to rave reviews, gaining Nine Inch Nails a new level of respect and appreciation from those yet to convert. Considered a landmark within industrial music, The Fragile offered an extremely complex and melancholic journey through Reznor’s emotions on a collection that would once again rank alongside the best Nine Inch Nails songs. Written during a time of personal crisis, tracks such as ‘The Day The World Went Away’ and the brilliant ‘We’re In This Together’ displayed a lyrical helplessness wrapped in undeniably powerful soaring choruses, while ‘Starfuckers, Inc’ revealed Reznor’s feelings towards people who had become anathema to him during this dark period of his life.
While continuing to tour and record with Nine Inch Nails, Reznor presented the world with another remix album, 2000’s Things Falling Apart, before retreating to begin the writing process for With Teeth, which was finally released in 2005.
Having traversed one of the most difficult periods of his life, Reznor emerged with a more accessible sound on With Teeth. Individual instruments were easier to identify on tracks such as ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Every Day Is Exactly The Same’, while guest drummer Dave Grohl made his presence known throughout, giving the impression that this iteration of Nine Inch Nails was a much more organic musical unit that it had been before.
Just two years later, Year Zero emerged as the first concept album – and arguably the most easily digestible album – in Nine Inch Nails’ catalogue. Loaded with tracks that lean away from Reznor’s previous angst-ridden compositions, the likes of opener ‘Capital G’ and ‘The Beginning Of The End’ could even be described as having an uplifting sense about them.
Subsequently free from his record label commitments, Reznor further spread his wings with 2008’s atmospheric 36-track instrumental opus, Ghosts I-IV, whose four movements were broken into nine smaller sections. Just a few months later, Nine Inch Nails’ seventh studio album, The Slip, was released. In keeping with what had become tradition, the album was front-loaded with faster melodic tracks such as ‘Discipline’ and ‘Echoplex’, before shifting into an overall fractured and introspective mood.
Having been active for 20 years, 2009 saw the band take to the road for a summer tour with Jane’s Addiction, which Reznor announced would be Nine Inch Nails’ last venture. In his two decades as the band’s figurehead, Reznor had also become a spokesman for a generation, the best Nine Inch Nails songs having soundtracked the lives of millions, and his devoted fans mourned what they believed to be the group’s swan song.
For the next few years, Reznor focused his attention on scoring films, earning himself an Oscar for 2010’s The Social Network, written with fellow composer Atticus Ross, and a Grammy for 2012’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. During this time, Reznor also worked with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and Atticus Ross on the How To Destroy Angles project, whole sole album, Welcome Oblivion, emerged in 2013.
Much to fans’ joy, the short-lived Nine Inch Nails hiatus came to an abrupt end that same year with the release of Hesitation Marks. Without attempting to regurgitate the highs of his past, Reznor successfully expanded upon the Nine Inch Nails formula with the likes of ‘Copy Of A’ and ‘Came Back Haunted’.
After three decades in the business, Trent Reznor has fulfilled many roles throughout his decorated career – and continues to do so, with his involvement with Dr Dre’s Beats Music venture and, more recently, the Apple Music streaming service furthering his interest in technology and the business side of the music industry. He has also continued to produce acclaimed soundtrack work with Atticus Ross, including the score for Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary The Vietnam War, and a chilling remake of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween film theme.
Reznor’s commitment to his music is a life-long love affair that will transcend his enigma and remain a crucial part of modern music history for generations to come. Nine Inch Nails is only one part of that legacy, but it looms large – and rightly so. While fans await the next new full-length release from the group, EPs such as 2016’s Not The Actual Events and the following year’s Add Violence, along with a collection of The Fragile-era outtakes, instrumentals and alternate recordings, The Fragile: Deviations 1, suggest that there’s always another cache of material to add to the best Nine Inch Nails songs. Clearly, Reznor has plenty more in store for a fanbase that rivals the most devoted in the world.
Vinyl reissues of the Broken EP (as a 12”+7”), The Downward Spiral, The Fragile, The Fragile: Deviations 1 and Not The Actual Events are out now and can be bought here.