I’ve spent the last few months listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, and the revelation I’ve had is that, as an adult, most of Trent Reznor’s early work bums me out way too much to listen to now. I’ve theoretically been a fan of the band for more than half my life, buying Pretty Hate Machine on cassette at an HMV in Avon, Connecticut with a gift certificate I’d gotten as a bar mitzvah present. That was the beginning of a difficult time in my life, a diagnosis with colitis that led to a number of hospital stays, surgeries and much time missed from school. Though I flirted with it, I did not use Nine Inch Nails, or industrial music in general, as my cathartic vehicle—I leaned further into the hardcore world and my confused hero was instead Black Flag’s Henry Rollins. While there was clearly an unparalleled intensity to Reznor, it seemed wrapped up in tastelessness: the Marilyn Manson mentorship, excessive black leather, all that fucking like an animal. In my head, I was less of a famous geek like Reznor and more like Rollins, who took his modest acclaim back to a lonely woodshed. Both of them started as angry loners, but Reznor, a staple of MTV in my early teenage years, seemed to be celebrating his success, and I felt disconnected from anyone that might luxuriate in a transition out of solitude. I just felt fucked up, and that wasn’t anything Mark Romanek could art direct, that a synthesizer could arpeggiate. Reznor was smashing the shit out of all of his equipment, doing a lot of drugs and finding that all of this was lucrative and marketable. Looking at his life now, it seems like commerce and fame being injected into such personal darkness must have been a strange and potentially devastating discovery for Reznor. He grew more adventurous with his work, but never less venomous with his lyrics and tone. I cannot imagine how a rough spotlight would change me. Being a person is hard enough without having people routinely associate you with Columbine.
One of the most affecting pieces of writing I know about the peculiarities of dealing with everyday rage is a graduation speech David Foster Wallace gave to students at Kenyon College in 2005. In it, he says that inevitably the most difficult part of living as you age is all of the routine monotony, like cell phone use in grocery store lines, or big SUVs in traffic. Wallace proposes, and I agree, that not letting those moments steer you towards a general dislike of humanity is one of the greatest achievements a person can have. He doesn’t propose much of a method, just a suggestion that maybe other people have it bad, too.
I wonder if Reznor finally understood that, because he’s finally softened. Unlike Wallace, who eventually succumbed to his depression, committing suicide in 2008, Reznor, now in his late 40s, has found sobriety, family and a hopeful direction in his music—or at the very least, he doesn’t seem to always be singing about despair. I mean, he won an Oscar making the soundtrack for a Jesse Eisenberg movie. That a man like him, once so seemingly disgusted with life, looks to have achieved serenity is what makes him so complex and so praiseworthy. But he still has the desire to create, and though his new music may be less arresting than his early, destructive records, it may also be a lot deeper. When I listen to Hesitation Marks, NIN’s new album, I hear open and curious composition, not fire-hot aggression. The Reznor of now wants to invite you for a beer; Reznor of then wanted to hit you over the head with the bottle. Honestly, I’d not be much of an editor if I didn’t say that that early, punishing work, with Reznor’s dire look and beguilingly pissed presence, is what truly makes him such a great subject for an issue such as this. Maybe it’s a smaller achievement that over time he figured out how to do what he does best with some grace, but to me, that’s what makes him not an just icon, but so much more.