Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Pretty Hate Machine is the kind of album legends are made of. The story goes: Trent Reznor, working as a custodian at a Cleveland recording studio, recorded the Pretty Hate Machine demo tracks on the sly, and later parlayed that demo into working around the world on the final record with renowned producers like Flood and John Fryer. The resulting LP was the first independently released album to go Platinum in the US. From janitor to jet-setting rock maverick before the album even dropped, it’s the kind of outsider victory that high school dropouts foam at the mouth for. The fact that the album was out of print for eight years just added to its mystique. Somehow, Pretty Hate Machine eclipses its own origin story — it’s one hell of a debut record.
Trent Reznor cut his musical teeth playing keyboards with new-wave and synthpop bands Option 30, the Innocent, and the Exotic Birds — and it shows. Pretty Hate Machine’s cocktail of buzzing processors, samples, and synth riffs isn’t far removed from music by Depeche Mode or Soft Cell around that time. Performed almost exclusively by Reznor himself, the instrumentation on Pretty Hate Machine is a cut above most bands of the time: industrial and synthpop albums tend to get repetitive, but every song here has its own signature, like the slap bass hook on “Sanctified,” and the processor stingers on “Sin.”
What really set Pretty Hate Machine apart, though, was its attitude. Reznor sounds absolutely haggard here, crafting a combination antihero-everyman character, making himself a stand-in for every person who has ever felt betrayed. The lyrics read like a hit list, populated by Gordon Gecko types (“Head Like A Hole”) treasonous femme fatales (“Sin”) and God almighty on “Terrible Lie,” from whom he demands “a great big apology.” In 1989 synthpop was still reeling from the New Romantic image, but Reznor became its dark, creepy antithesis — one can practically see the knives sticking out of his back.
Pretty Hate Machine is not perfect — lyrics have always been Reznor’s Achilles heel and some of the songs here, like “Kinda I Want To,” and “Down In It” are downright embarrassing. Still, Pretty Hate Machine gets around the bases far more often than it strikes out, and even packs a few awesome but often-overlooked songs, like Reznor’s first (excellent) ballad, “Something I Can Never Have,” and the album’s disenchanted closer, “Ringfinger.”