Review #453: Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails

Karla Clifton
3 min readNov 3, 2023


#453: Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails

It’s a shame I didn’t discover NIN in high school or college because, man, I would have eaten that up. It’s an even bigger shame I was born long after this record was released. NIN shows sound amazing. He would spray corn starch and chocolate syrup over the crowd? He would rip the keys off of keyboards? Blah blah born in the wrong generation blah blah.

In some ways, Trent Reznor got extraordinarily unlucky: he was fighting with his label, TVT, throughout the entire recording process of his debut album. He was so bitter about it that he all but stuck his tongue out at them when they filed for bankruptcy in 2008. According to him, there was royalty disputes, promotion conflicts, and general personality clashes when they forced him to work with people he didn’t like. He was so pissed about it that he recorded his EP Broken secretly, funding it himself, before signing with Interscope. Most of all, he hated Steve Gottlieb, TVT’s founder. He hated him so much that he would lay little Easter eggs in his future work about how much he hated him. My own personal conspiracy theory is that the final track, “Ringfinger,” was reworked to be about Gottlieb: Well, you’ve got me workin’ so hard lately/ Workin’ my hands until they bleed.

Part of the problem seemed to be that Reznor was difficult to categorize. He’s industrial and electronic, but he goes so, so hard. “Head Like A Hole” is a scarily aggressive song about power dynamics — it was genius for Black Mirror to rework it into a song about an abused pop star. (And then let Miley Cyrus absolutely obliterate a cover of the original.) The music video for “Down In It,” where Reznor falls off a building, was so realistic that the FBI investigated it. For a whole year. If that’s not a sign of success I don’t know what is.

Something I find interesting about NIN music is that even though it sounds like it was recorded in a metal box, much of it is centered around religious themes. “Terrible Lie” deals with a loss of faith, and “Sin” (Big NSFW on that link) is about twisted sex in spite of religious guilt — or maybe because of it. Even when he’s not singing about religion, his sex songs seem to wrestle with guilt, like “Kinda I Want To.” But like he says in the hate-f*** ballad “The Only Time,” even if he’s all messed up, it’s the only time he really feels alive.

Reznor has gone on record saying that some of this album feels “immature” to him. The only time I really agreed with him was when he was singing about love. “Sanctified” is a little kid’s version of love (I still dream of lips I never should have kissed, oh please), and “That’s What I Get” is a foot-stamping, whiney song about getting cheated on. The only exception to the rule was “Something I Can Never Have,” a haunted, sparse piano ballad about lost love and self-destruction.

In any case, Trent Reznor seems to be haunted by far fewer demons these days. He’s been married since 2009 and has FIVE kids?! He’s FIFTY-EIGHT?? I love that for him.

Final Note: I always forget that Trent Reznor is kind of hunky.

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