If you had to boil down Trent Reznor's persona to one word, that word would be "control." In the chorus of Nine Inch Nails' breakout song "Head Like a Hole," Reznor hollers that he'd "rather die than give you control." The liner notes of Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, declare that "Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails." There is little doubt that Reznor has been fully responsible for conceiving, executing, and presenting pretty much everything he's ever been associated with, in part because he always makes sure to strenuously point it out. For those who are only casually familiar with Nine Inch Nails' music (and therefore are inclined to view Reznor as a broadly rendered caricature), this compulsion to dominate is the totality of Reznor. It is as basic to our understanding of Trent Reznor as problematic punk-rock politics are to Kurt Cobain and quixotic battles with corporate ticketing agencies are to Eddie Vedder.
But to fully understand the evolution of Reznor's career over the course of nearly 25 years, it's also important to examine the long stretches of time when he was inactive. In many ways, how Reznor is regarded in 2013 has been largely shaped by forces he couldn't have possibly managed himself. So, before we cover all the pertinent landmarks on Reznor's career arc (including the great new Nine Inch Nails album, Hesitation Marks), let's briefly review three areas of apparent dead space located around those landmarks:
Between the release of 1994's The Downward Spiral (the album that made Nine Inch Nails one of the biggest alt-rock bands on the planet) and 1999's The Fragile (the album that marked the end of alt-rock's commercial prime), Reznor spent roughly two and a half years touring and a little more than two years recording. This period includes Nine Inch Nails' historic appearance at Woodstock '94, which is easily the most memorable part of that otherwise historically inessential event.1 It also includes Reznor's work on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers, which is easily the least offensive part of that otherwise historically inessential film.
The five-year wait between Nine Inch Nails albums didn't necessarily seem that long at the time — Reznor was omnipresent on the radio in spite of creating little in the way of new music.2 Bands that he had worked with (like Marilyn Manson), bands that included members he had worked with in the past (like Filter), and bands that wished they could've worked with him (like Stabbing Westward) all had hits patterned off of The Downward Spiral in the mid-to-late '90s. Even when Reznor retreated from view as a rock star, he was unavoidable as a genre. And this inevitably hurt Reznor's career by hastening the end of a musical trend that he defined.
Through no direct fault of his own, the densely produced, hyperkinetic, wildly melodramatic, and sadomasochistic gimp-pop that Reznor had perfected on the first three Nine Inch Nails records became inextricably linked to a specific moment in the '90s when that shit was hijacked and mass-produced by other people. When The Fragile finally came out and parachuted out of the Billboard top 10 after debuting at no. 1 the previous week — the album's 15-spot drop was the worst second-week sales decline in chart history at the time — Nine Inch Nails was suddenly perched on the precipice of full-on relicdom.
Between The Fragile and 2005's With Teeth, there were two crucial developments that forever altered the future of Nine Inch Nails. In 2001, Reznor got sober, finally putting an end to a self-destructive cycle of alcohol and drug abuse that had begun during the post–Downward Spiral wilderness years and metastasized in the midst of The Fragile's hellish support tour. Two years later, about the time that Reznor tentatively planned to start working on With Teeth, Johnny Cash covered "Hurt" at the suggestion of Reznor's friend, Rick Rubin.
Reznor lent the (original) Man in Black his best song about one of his favorite topics: the cleansing beauty of all-consuming pain. But Cash gave Reznor something far more valuable: fresh credibility as a songwriter who didn't deserve to be relegated to the buzz bin of the previous decade. In Cash's soulfully gnarled hands, "Hurt" sounded like a folk song that had been whittled into the stump of a felled redwood hundreds of years ago. It provided Reznor a much-needed leg up in recontextualizing his music for a post-'90s world. Maybe it's too pat to argue that Nine Inch Nails went from seeming dated to timeless, just like that, but Cash's version of "Hurt" did make a case (for those otherwise disinclined to believe it) that Reznor deserved to be ranked among the most lasting musical artists of his generation.
In 2009, Reznor announced that he was retiring Nine Inch Nails as a touring unit, and for a while there it looked like he might transition into a full-time career as the Music for Airports alternative to John Williams. His work with frequent collaborator Atticus Ross on the Oscar-winning score for 2010's The Social Network and 2011's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were logical extensions of 2008's all-instrumental NIN release, Ghosts I-IV, and even large swaths of The Fragile. But before he could set off permanently into a world of ambient soundscapes, Reznor was obligated by his record company to deliver a couple of snappy new songs for a greatest hits LP. What he came up with was "Everything" and "Satellite," which hearkened back to the muscular synth-pop of Pretty Hate Machine. They also sounded a lot like music that is currently in vogue — arena EDM and Yeezus and futurist indie outfits like Fuck Buttons who are making some of 2013's most mind-blowing rock records on their laptops.
Those songs eventually inspired Reznor to make an entire album, Hesitation Marks, which manages the unique feat of simultaneously sounding like "classic" Nine Inch Nails and (accidentally) more contemporary than many of his alt-rock peers could ever dream of being. It's the opposite of what had happened to Nine Inch Nails in the wake of The Downward Spiral — just when Trent Reznor thought he was out, pop culture pulled him back in.
It's revisionist history to say that Pretty Hate Machine and "Head Like a Hole" instantly became the favored soundtrack for disaffected middle schoolers in the early '90s. Maybe that was true if you watched MTV exclusively after 11 p.m. on Sunday nights. But for people who watched videos during the day, the introduction to Nine Inch Nails came via 1992's Broken EP (the band's first top-10 album) and its scathing single "Wish." The abrasive, borderline metal of Broken (which derived from Nine Inch Nails' pummeling live performances) is still Reznor's signature sound, even if it's been years since he's made music in that vein. It's similar to how some people still classify Bob Dylan as a protest singer in spite of the dearth of topical Dylan songs after 1963. In the popular consciousness, Reznor will always be a raging headbanger wailing away in the middle of a postmodern Thunderdome.
Several years after Broken's success, Reznor took a dim view of the record, believing that he had caved in to pressure to make his music more aggressive after fans complained about the disparity between Nine Inch Nails' furious concerts and the relatively light Pretty Hate Machine. This criticism was accurate: Compared with the heavy-riffing grunge albums it was invariably lumped with, Pretty Hate Machine sounded like a Depeche Mode record. It was also a natural product of Reznor's roots. "The excitement of hearing a Human League track and thinking, that's all machines, there's no drummer. That was my calling," Reznor told Spin in 1996. "It wasn't the Sex Pistols."
In essence, Reznor was pretending to be something he wasn't in order to grow his audience. For instance, in the "Head Like a Hole" and "Wish" videos, Reznor is shown playing a guitar, which wasn't his primary instrument. As a child in rural Pennsylvania, he was a serious piano student, and was encouraged by his teacher to pursue a career as a concert pianist.3 Later, when Reznor fled to "the big city" in Cleveland, he worked in a keyboard store and filled out "the dorky guy behind the wall of synths" role in a couple of semi-careerist club bands. While Reznor's formative musical experiences included classic rockers — Kiss, The Wall, Berlin-era Bowie — he wasn't a rock guy at heart. He played the part of a budding punk to fit in with the alternative scene.
"I was so concerned about staying 'alternative,' that indie bullshit mentality," Reznor admitted in that '96 Spin interview. "I wanted to make a 'fuck you' record. It was also a bit of a knee-jerk, 'I'm not a pussy,' 'I'm not a sell-out' attitude." The most "fuck you" aspect of Broken was the album's promotion, which included a series of music videos that MTV deemed too graphic to air. The most notorious video was for the song "Happiness in Slavery," in which a man was torn apart by a machine in the pursuit of sexual gratification. (For perspective's sake, consider that MTV's Video of the Year in 1992 was Van Halen's "Right Now," in which Sammy Hagar's words are torn apart by a Crystal Pepsi commercial.)
Promoting a record with un-airable torture porn might seem like a waste of time and money. But given how the media operated in the early '90s, it was a genius marketing strategy. The power of "Happiness in Slavery" was that it was forbidden.4 This made Nine Inch Nails seem dangerous and provocative, even if people couldn't technically be provoked by something that they couldn't watch. It set NIN apart in the puritanical world of alt-rock — as most bands steadfastly avoided behavior that might be construed in any way as cheesy glam-metal decadence, Reznor had the market cornered on lurid depictions of nihilistic lust.5
In this respect, Reznor was alt's truest (i.e., most traditional) rock star. He knew how to tease his audience just long enough before delivering the money shot, which finally arrived two years later in the form of a video MTV could (and did) play approximately 116 times a day. During an era when it was nearly impossible to imagine most rock singers even talking to a groupie, Reznor slipped into sultry Jim Morrison leather and purred about penetrating a willing partner with animalistic glee. "Closer" made Trent Reznor the most alternative of all alt-rock entities: a bona fide sex symbol.
In the realm of '90s rock stars, Trent Reznor typically plays second fiddle to Thom Yorke when it comes to forward thinkers. This is probably related to Reznor's decision to release 2009's The Slip as a free download two years after Radiohead put up In Rainbows online as rock's defining pay-what-you-will album. Yorke was hailed as a record-industry revolutionary while Reznor was lightly patted on the back for being a dutiful follower.6
If we're going to compare Nine Inch Nails with Radiohead (I think I just did, so let's stick with it for a second), Reznor was the one who was prescient in another, arguably more artistically valid way. While Kid A is often described as the first rock record of the '00s — in the sense that it was made by a band formerly known for rousing arena anthems that no longer seemed interested in recording anything remotely resembling rousing arena anthems — I think that distinction actually belongs to The Fragile, which came out one year prior. The Fragile is a choking-hazard of an album, made up of 103 minutes of introverted prog instrumentals and antisocial (and anti-pop) electronica labored over by a brilliant technician who made sure that every perfectly recorded sound was placed precisely in mix, and it felt exactly as cold and uninviting as the average human brain feels after 16 consecutive hours spent contemplating shiny knobs behind a studio console.
The difference between The Fragile and Kid A is that Radiohead was mostly rewarded for taking a deliberately difficult and (at times) inscrutably insular left turn. If you were a crazy contrarian, you could argue that Kid A is actually a failure in this regard, because it's a self-consciously "alienating" record that made people who cared the most about Radiohead believe even more intensely in the group's integrity. But for Reznor, The Fragile really was a gamble that, in the short term, did not pay off. The album was considered such a disappointment that Interscope Records wouldn't pay for a tour; Reznor had to pay for concerts that promoted a record that Interscope was selling out of his own pocket.
Nine Inch Nails was (and still is) a lot more popular than Radiohead. (Among the mainstream rock audience, The Downward Spiral towers over OK Computer in terms of sales and radio airplay.) This affected the perception of what was essentially a self-indulgent project created in open defiance of audience expectations. What made Radiohead seem brave made Reznor appear delusional and even arrogant.
Reznor waited several years before The Fragile's follow-up, With Teeth. Upon the album's release, he was forced by the media to perform a familiar "walk of shame" routine of making the rounds and saying critical things about a previous project that underperformed commercially in order to publicize a "comeback" record. That Reznor seemed to associate The Fragile with his precarious mental state in the late '90s only fueled the narrative that the album was a mistake. "The Fragile was an album based on a lot of fear," Reznor told Spin in 2005, "because I was afraid as fuck about what was happening to me. That's why there aren't a lot of lyrics on that record. I couldn't fucking think. An unimaginable amount of effort went into that record in a very unfocused way."
It's odd that Reznor seems to assert that the lack of lyrics on The Fragile is somehow a weakness, since it's the appearance of lyrics that typically detracts from other Nine Inch Nails records. Reznor is not an expert at assembling interesting words into great lyrics7 — his talent is in thoughtfully melding oppressively clean mechanics with startling human noise and shaping it into evocative mood music, which is why The Fragile is easily the Nine Inch Nails record I listen to the most. "'The Fragile' is weird because when it came out it felt like everyone hated it to me," Reznor told the New York Times in 2011, "and now it feels like it's everyone's favorite album, fan-wise." But the main reason Reznor disliked The Fragile (for a while, at least) was because he regarded it as a puzzle he could not solve. It compelled him to simplify.
Hesitation Marks lacks the ambition of The Fragile, but it is a similarly illuminating signpost — it clarifies some common misconceptions about Reznor and his work. When heard in retrospect, the cinematic sweep of The Fragile points toward Reznor's future as a film composer. Hesitation Marks, meanwhile, shines a light on Reznor's past, though not necessarily in a nostalgic sense. Rather, it underlines Reznor's core strength as a pop tunesmith who was initially inspired by floppy-haired techno-dandies before he was pointed in the direction of The Land of Rape and Honey.8 I doubt that Reznor set out to clarify his own legacy, but that's what he's done: Hesitation Marks positions Nine Inch Nails as the bridge between '90s alt-rock and the "plastic" '80s groups that alt-rock supposedly set out to destroy.
Reznor's pop sense has always been his secret weapon. It's what helped restore some of the commercial luster to the Nine Inch Nails brand on With Teeth, which spawned Reznor's most popular radio song of the last 10 years, the New Order–like "The Hand That Feeds." After the positive exposure from Cash's "Hurt" cover, Reznor (consciously or not) crafted With Teeth as a singer-songwriter album — one of the press narratives for the record was that it was an "organic" effort with live instrumentation. (Dave Grohl, the self-styled modern-day Mustafa of rock naturalism, played drums on several tracks.) But what With Teeth was really about for Reznor was getting back to writing hooky songs like "All the Love in the World," which climaxes with a disco-gospel breakdown that flirts with dance music.
Hesitation Marks isn't as tentative about being a collection of pop songs. In fact, it feels downright celebratory. Along with his own history — this is the record where Reznor concedes that Pretty Hate Machine will ultimately outlive The Downward Spiral — Reznor's muse on Hesitation Marks is the early-'80s incarnation of Talking Heads. Nine Inch Nails' excellent career-spanning Lollapalooza performance in August began in a manner similar to David Byrne's "Psycho Killer" cold open from Stop Making Sense. (Reznor also briefly employed former Talking Heads guitarist Adrian Belew in his current backing band.) Musically, the album takes its cues from songs like "Burning Down the House" and "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)," where Byrne returned to Talking Heads' original guise as a pleasantly twisted twee-pop outfit in a sea of furious New York City punks. Reznor's maturation has followed a similar path: He's never been more comfortable with being who he really was all along.
Along with Welcome Oblivion, the engagingly atmospheric full-length debut by his side project How to Destroy Angels that came out earlier this year, Hesitation Marks represents the least bellicose music of Reznor's career. Given his image at the height of his '90s stardom, growing old has suited Reznor, who turned 48 in May, surprisingly well. Who would've guessed in 1994 that Nine Inch Nails would eventually have a post-rehab "blissed-out middle age" period?
"I'm happy with who I am now," Reznor told Spin last month. "I feel fortunate to be where I am. We tried arranging the new songs with loud guitars, and it sounded false. Instead, we approached those old emotions in new ways that are subtler, and I think just as powerful." If the contentment that Reznor is expressing explicitly in interviews and implicitly on his latest albums is alarming for old fans, perhaps they can take comfort in Reznor's songwriting and production chops still being in top-flight shape. Years after the imitators nearly exhausted the Nine Inch Nails sound, Reznor still makes bangin' undead goth sex jams — only now those undead goths are holding hands in matching parallel bathtubs.
Besides, the prospect of Reznor screaming about pigs and belligerent fornication in the penumbra of his 50th birthday would not have been a tenable route for Nine Inch Nails. But the sorta-retro, sorta-trendy infectiousness of Hesitation Marks seems like a way forward. Reznor has the potential to be the new Bowie — an elder statesman who's good at staying just cool enough for each new generation to give his old records a courtesy pass. The guy who once made music expressly designed for kids to annoy their parents with can now be the one thing youngsters and Gen-X geezers agree on.