The Boston Phoenix




 Happy As Hell


  Words: Amy Finch




BROKEN DREAMS? Reznor‘s new record has hardened into something far more aggressive and colder than Pretty Hate Machine.

Has Nine Inch Nails‘ Reznor traded tunefulness for bile?

Hell hath no fury like a musician pissed off at some one who‘s burned him. When Nine Inch Nails recorded its debut, Pretty Hate Machine (TVT), three years ago, creator Trent Reznor was probably inspired more by his private, romantic hell than anything else.

Well, Broken (Atlantic/Interscope/ TVT), the new Nine Inch Nails EP, finds Trent still plenty lathered up over the intimacies of obsession and betrayal. But a hate affair between Reznor and the label that released his debut, TVT, has also blossomed into something vicious, no doubt adding to the white-hot rage of Broken. (“I‘m on the worst record label on the planet and I keep getting this finger stuck up my ass, so there‘s plenty of things to hate life about,“ he said in an interview last year.) Legal struggles with TVT have helped delay the release of new NIN material until now.

For months Reznor (NIN is his solo project; hired guys play with him live) has been warning that his music has hardened into something far more aggressive and colder than Pretty Hate Machine. “A lot of our newest fans are attaching themselves to a side of NIN that doesn‘t exist any more,“ he told Spin magazine last spring.

Indeed, Broken may alienate fans who loved Pretty Hate Machine for the way it used electronic gadgetry to unload some of the most visceral, organic noises this side of a harakiri session. Although the record got NIN lumped into the “industrial“ category, that said beans about the melodies, the earthiness, and the emotion al hunger lurking beneath the blinding fury — a combination that has kept it on the charts after almost two years. Broken is less interesting because it lacks the distinct glimmer of hope and tenderness — poetically direct lyrics and tattered pop tunefulness — that made Pretty Hate Machine such an alluring contradiction.

Too bad Broken must be measured against the greatness of Pretty Hate Machine, because it is at times potent and expressive in its own right. Reznor‘s facility with words, specifically those that speak of broken trust, often makes the nastiest parts of the recording less off-putting. But overall Broken is just too discordant and monotonous in its attack.

Perhaps Reznor himself recognizes this. In a publicity statement accompanying the tape, he writes, “Broken was a hard recording to make. Broken is an ugly record made during an ugly time in my life.“ Cynics can scoff and slag Nine Inch Nails for its shameless self-indulgence, but often there‘s not much of a leap from the personal to the universal. And there‘s a dark comic quality in the way Reznor bares his guts. In the liner notes, after thanking various persons, he goes so far as to add a “no thanks“ to “you know who you fucking are.“ You‘d have to conclude that Reznor‘s not a real mirthful type of guy. Then again, maybe he‘s sly enough to see the wit in overstatement.

Broken starts with the slow, heavy Synthesizer riff of “Wish,“ then jumps into a percussive roar that sets the pace for the rest of the record. “Wish there was some thing real, wish there was something true, in this world full of you,“ Reznor screams, never letting up. And therein lies a good part of Broken‘s weakness: when a guy has a seething-but-tuneful voice like Reznor‘s, it hurts to hear him turn it into something so unpalatable — even grating. Sure, power can be born of frenzy; “Head like a Hole“ was a good example. But that small hit from Pretty Hate Machine was so lethal because of its structure, the way it rose up out of coolly controlled menace to smack you in the cranium.

On “Last,“ Reznor electronically distorts his voice, transforming it into an unrecognizable heavy-metal growl that matches the leaden flail of guitars. “This isn‘t meant to last. This is for right now!“ he declares. Alas, the existential urgency isn‘t pointed enough to prevent your’re calling that other bands (notably Ministry, on their latest) have married heavy metal and industrial musics far more gracefully.

But no gripes can stain such a glorious number as “Happiness in Slavery,“ on which Reznor demonstrates that he can still force machinery to spit out some of the angriest, most evocative music imaginable. Partly because it sits on an irresistible pounding beat, “Happiness“ does not challenge appreciation the way much of Broken does. Hell, give us a good dance beat and we‘ll give you the moon.

There‘s more to “Happiness“ than a mighty groove. Reznor fulfills the promise of Pretty Hate Machine by throwing forth his passion full-force, then backing off enough to allow it to turn into a song, not a lot of random venom. “I‘ve found you can find happiness in slavery,“ he sings, and it‘s enough to make a body‘s mouth water in anticipation of the next Nine Inch Nails album, which is due early next year and which will offer all-new material. Maybe by then, Trent will have harnessed his rage into the crafty structure that gave him “Happiness in Slavery.“