I have spent the past month flattened by depression.
Disappointments in both my personal and professional life really did a number on me. But I met someone who helped me come back from it. Met? No, rather got reacquainted with.
His name is Trent Reznor. He is Nine Inch Nails.
I went through the majority of the 1990s as a strict devotee of that band. In time, my tastes altered and in truth, softened a bit as I branched out into other musical directions. There are those who would say "so much the better."
Why? Because Nine Inch Nails is "so depressing." True, the lyrical content of the songs tend to deal with heartbreak, rage, suicide, and insanity. It's not exactly "feel good music" but it also fucking happens. They are legitimate aspects of the human experience. Therefore, they are subject to treatment by art and artists. If anything, it is the obligation of artists to explore these subjects and deal with them openly and honestly as opposed to shunting them into a corner for safety and happiness' sake. Besides, whoever said that art was supposed to be safe?
"It's just noise" has been another criticism I have heard. Perhaps. Reznor loves his grating sounds and loops of atonal cacophony, but it isn't exactly "noise" without purpose. To me, the music of Nine Inch Nails is the sound of a technological society coming apart at the seams. It's the sound of a world where the Cylons won or the transhuman singularity happened and it didn't exactly pan out the way we wanted it. Piece by piece we replaced ourselves with cybernetics, all the way until each one of us saw the world through William Gibson's eyes. As I continually maintain, I am a singularity proponent but I am not blind to its potential pitfalls. Reznor may be pointing out just such pitfalls...or openly accepting them as an inevitable and inexorable swan dive into the abyss.
During that aforementioned run in the 1990s, I saw Nine Inch Nails live three times; twice on The Downward Spiral tour and once opening for David Bowie on the latter's Outside tour. I can personally attest that one of the hallmarks and distinctive aspects of the band is their live shows. The first two times featured a stage set that was one of the most artistically innovative that I have ever seen before or since. It seemed a landscape of the discarded, halfway between a prison yard and a post-apocalyptic planet and all of the lighting appeared to be centered from shoulder-height and down as opposed to hung overhead. At the onset of the "trilogy" of "Eraser," "Hurt," and "The Downward Spiral," a scrim lowered and obscured the stage. Upon it was projected various black and white images of various levels of "disturbing" (if you've seen the live video for "Hurt" then you probably know what I mean.) Then, as "The Downward Spiral" reached its climactic moment, streaks of red ran down the images and the scrim rose. The stage was bathed in red light and more dry ice vapor than I have ever seen. Standing in the midst of the fog you could see three figures: Reznor and his guitar players, thrashing in place like a trio of hellions.
As I said, I lost touch with the band shortly after The Fragile and Reznor's work with David Lynch on Lost Highway. So I decided to see what the band has been like live in recent years. Check out this performance of "Vessel:"
Again the color red makes its return, but in spastic flashes and discordant breakdowns. Something's coming apart. Is it that technological society that I mentioned or is it sanity itself? Are these perhaps synapses firing in the fevered brain of someone who just can't manage the world anymore?
I explored further, seeking out records that Nine Inch Nails has made in the past decade or so. On With Teeth, I found what have already become a few of my favorite NIN songs: "Only" and "All the Love in the World." Year Zero was a record marketed as a broadcast from a dystopian future, warning us to fight what is to come. Composed at the height of the Bush administration, Reznor describes a political state where Christianity is the national religion and all citizens are required to fall in line with it. Case in point, this is one of the logos from the corresponding tour for Year Zero:
That's right. Guns and religion. And really, what else were the Bush years about? Just another day in 'Murica.
To me, Year Zero represented true artistic growth for Reznor. He seemed to realize that while there was great merit to the introspective work he had been doing, he came to a point where he had to look externally for inspiration. Once doing so, he obviously found a political situation he was unhappy with (who could blame him) and could not let it go by without comment.
Trent Reznor is busy with a new Nine Inch Nails tour and I wholeheartedly recommend seeing them. I'm disappointed about missing the band at Lolapalooza Chicago with The Cure, but them's the breaks. Reznor is also working with his wife on a project called How To Destroy Angels, another set of music I encourage you to check out. If you in any way appreciate spectacle, the show will drown out whatever you might think about the tonal or lyrical content of the songs.
Because I know it's not for everybody. Except for perhaps Morrissey, no one can do self-loathing better than Trent Reznor (Now there's a visual. A Morrissey/Trent Reznor cage match. Mozz has a bit of a bite to him but he's also world weary and been rather sick lately. Meanwhile, Trent looks big enough to bench press Buicks these days so my money is on him.) That likewise leads to the adjective of "depressing" that some folks tend to apply to Nine Inch Nails. But anyone who does any amount of critical introspection should come away with attributes about themselves that they don't really like. Perhaps even hate. Again, that makes for honest material for an artist to draw from.
Depressing? Maybe but there are those of us out there who have struggled with that very condition. Music like that of Nine Inch Nails is oddly reassuring. It reminds us that there is at least one other person out there who has felt this way and they used these dark emotions to positive and creative ends. That alone makes Nine Inch Nails, in my opinion, most therapeutic.
So thanks, Trent. Because of you I'm back...with teeth.
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