2. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

cd cover 2.Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

So we’re on to number 2. So when I started this thing, I made a list of every album I could think of that might be on a “favorites” list. I had about a hundred. Then I chopped it down to about 50. Then I started ordering them, and eventually took the top 25 out and put those that remained on that almost list. The order of that top twenty-five has moved around slightly. A few albums from the almost list have been swapped in, and some whole sections have been moved around. #4 and #3 have been there the entire time, but #2 and #1 have been switching back and forth constantly. When it comes down to it, they’re pretty much tied for first. One becomes slightly higher than the other based mainly on mood: pissed versus depressed. So here we are, with #2, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. First thing to note: The name of this album is just plain excellent: “Pretty Hate Machine”… Looking at the lyrics, I think the album name captures it quite well: Here’s this guy who is filled with anger, despair, and depression… but it’s almost as though he takes a perverse pleasure in his despair.. A warped masochism (as opposed to a good masochism?) that creates these beautiful song poems about pain, betrayal, heartache, and misery.

[Just a note.. I’ve tried to write this thing 3 times, and all three times I was fairly mad, sad, or depressed, and what came up was less than quality… an interesting but disturbing mix of self-pity, self-loathing, and outright rage at all things living. I’ve gone through and tried to make it better, but there are likely still sections where things aren’t great. I suppose at one time or another, it was something I wanted to write about. Anyway, disclaimer over.]

I’m honestly having a hard time thinking of what to say about this album. Anything I say seems like an injustice, really. I’ve already mentioned that I got an album, this album, from my friend Kenton in High School. I listened to it, and liked a number of songs on it, but after I got repeatedly dicked over by Sarah I started listening to it a lot more… and it became a pattern. This album became the mainstay in a wretched cycle of disappointment -> anger -> depression. I wish I could say that listening to this album made me feel better about things, or made me less mad/angry/depressed. It didn’t really do that. It usually made me feel okay about feeling that way, but mostly, it was simply something I felt was necessary. I was in pain, and I needed something that matched that. Eventually, this album had the ability to numb things a bit, which was really what I was looking for. Here’s the thing.. if I’m pissed off, listening to an album that’s happy is going to piss me off even more. That’s not what I need. If I was mad, I want everyone to be mad.. at least everyone in connection with me. So too if I was pissed, sad, depressed, etc. That’s why when I became one of these things, I hid myself away, and didn’t really associate with anyone. I didn’t want my friends to be mad/sad/etc.. but I knew for a fact that if they were happy, it’d just make me mad that I wasn’t happy. I dunno.. I’m explaining this poorly, but I doubt I could ever explain it well… It’s partially the fact that I’m very much into myself and my own feelings [in that my own feelings/emotions completely control me, to the point that I’m no longer useful as a person much of the time], and partially the fear that the joys afforded to other people will be denied me simply because I desire them so damn much. Despite numerous flurries of unbridled optimism, I still hold that as one of my chief fears, and have witnessed little to deny its frightening possibility.

I seem to have gotten off track… back to this album. I listened to this album very regularly from the middle of high school through all of college. Any time I was down, mad, etc… it would go on. I’d take naps to it, I’d program to it, I’d drive to it, and I’d fall asleep to it at night. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that I didn’t really take comfort in the fact that someone else out there felt the same way I did.. I mean, that didn’t make me feel better at all… I did really liked the fact that I could use this to explain to other people how I felt without just sounding like a whiny bitch… and that’s what I’d do.. Close friends who would go through music with me, like Molly… I’d pick a song from this album, and we’d look at it, and I think it helped her understand… I hope so anyway. It gets very tiring having to pretend to so many people that you’re fine all the time.. sometimes it’s really nice to know that there are people out there, close friends, where you can be honest and say that you’re not fine, and that you haven’t been fine for such a long time that you don’t even know what fine is like anymore. Coming right out and saying that sometimes just scares people away.. they’re convinced you’re going to go kill yourself, or they’ll just assume that it’s a “bad day” thing, and you’ll be cheery in the morning… Anyway, there are songs on this album that made talking about problems like that a lot easier.

I think this album’s songs can be thrown into one of two categories: There are songs about loss and rejection, and then songs that aren’t about loss and rejection. While I like all the songs on this album a lot, I prefer the ones in the first category…

First we have Head Like a Hole, which is fairly well known, I believe. It got a decent amount of radio time, and it was the first NIN song I had ever heard. I see it as the first song in a set of two, with Starfuckers, Inc. from The Fragile. Head Like a Hole is essentially about people making themselves whores to money.. The pursuit of fortunes pretty much take over their lives, and, well, blackens their souls.. I think the chorus says it well: “Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.“.

Next is Terrible Lie, which I think is one of the best written songs from the whole NIN catalog. Much of this entire album has already been addressed in the comments to this post, but I’ll be reiterating things here and there. Terrible Lie deals with the struggle between believing the promises of God (and, I think, Christianity in particular.) He very much wants to believe, as he sees the benefits, but for one reason or another (I believe it to be an inability to accept the fact that he can not save himself) he is unable to believe, and he blames God for what he sees as a betrayal. How can he believe in a God that’s good, and will give all this good stuff (Salvation, etc..) if the world is so wretched? So, as a result, he calls God a liar.

Down In It has been one of my favorite songs on this album since the beginning. It starts out with things all going so very well, and things just fall apart, and leave him completely destroyed. It contains a snippet I very much like:

  I used to be so big and strong  I used to know my right from wrong  I used to never be afraid  I used to be somebody.    I used to have something inside  Now it's just this hole that's open wide.  I used to want it all  I used to be somebody.

Andy said something in the comments to that old post that I very much liked and agreed with. One of the things I like about this album is that even though early on in the album the singer rejects God, and begins to revel in sin, throughout the album, he still seems to recognize what he’s doing is wrong, and that there’s just something “off” about all of it. That idea seems to start around here. We begin with Sanctified, which seems to be about having sex to make yourself feel better… only it’s not really making you feel all that good, and you just seem unable to do anything about it. Another look, and some research suggests it could be about drug addiction, instead.:

  i'm just caught up in another of her spells.  well she's turning me into someone else.  everyday i hope and pray this will end.  but when i can i do it all again  

Something I Can Never Have is one of my favorite songs. It’s a sad song, and it sounds sad. This is the song about loss and rejection.

  I still recall the taste of your tears  echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears  my favorite dreams of you still wash ashore  scraping through my head til I don't want to sleep anymore    come on tell me  you make this all go away  I'm down to just one thing and I'm starting to scare myself  you make this all go away  I just want something I can never have    you always were the one to show me how  back then I couldn't do the things that I can do now  this thing is slowly taking me apart  grey would be the color if I had a heart      in this place it seems like such a shame  though it all looks different now, I now it's still the same  everywhere I look you're all I see  just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be    [ think i know what you meant.  that night on my bed.  still picking at this scab  i wish you were dead.  you sweet and perry ellis.  just stains on my sheets.]    

With Kinda I Want To he comes right out and says it: What I’m doing is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway.

  I'm not sure of what I should do  when everything I'm thinking of is you  all of my excuses turn to lies  maybe god will cover up his eyes    I know it's not the right thing  and I know it's not the good thing  but kinda I want to    maybe just for tonight  we can pretend it's alright  what's the price I pay  I don't care what they say  

The album continues in this vein.. You have Sin, an amazing an powerful song that I think tells the story of a guy betrayed and left by the one he loves.

  You give me the reason.  You give me control.  I gave you my Purity.  My Purity you stole.  Did you think i wouldn't recognize this compromise.  Am i just too stupid to realize.  Stale incense old sweat and lies lies lies  

Think of it this way (or at least, this is my interpretation of it): A guy [a virgin] hooks up with this girl, falls completely in love with her. Eventually they sleep together, then she dumps him. I think the line “Stale incense, old sweat, and lies, lies lies” could refer to the girl’s past… old lovers, etc.. or to the memory of when they made love (the incense and sweat have grown old and stale, but the lies that got them there remain.)

  It comes down to this.  Your kiss.  Your fist.  And your strain.  It gets under my skin.  Within.  Take in the extent of my sin  

Equating her kiss to violence (her fist). The line “Take in the extent of my sin” could mean a number of things: It could be referring back to them having sex, which he now views as wrong. It could be asking her to take away the guilt/sin he now feels as a result of that experience. Or he could talking about his hatred for her.. wanting her to feel and experience the full extent of his rage.

  You give me the anger.  You give me the nerve.  Carry out the sentence.    I get what i deserve.  I'm just an effigy to be defaced.  To be disgraced.  Your need for me has been replaced.  And if i can't have everything well then just give me a taste.   

Okay, so he sees what he’s done is wrong, and feels he’s being punished (the betrayal, the pain/anger/emptiness eh now feels)… The last line hits me two ways. One idea is that now that he can look back and see how he was used, he wants to do the same thing to her… sleep with her purely for sex without any feelings (since he can’t have “everything”, i.e. the relationship, he just wants the “taste”).. the other idea is that thought that somehow sleeping with her will make things go back to the way they used to be… or at least make them better than they are today. He still can’t have everything.. he can’t go back to being naive.. but if he could be with her, at least he’s have a taste of what it was like back then.

This idea is furthered along with That’s What I Get, which seems like the logical next step from Sin. Now he’s just really depressed, and self-loathing. The lyrics speak for themselves.

  Just when everything was making sense.  You took away all my self - confidence.  Now all that i've been hearing must be true.  I guess i'm not the only boy for you.    But that's what i get    How could you turn us into this?  After you just taught me how to kiss you.  I told you i'd never say goodbye.  I'm slipping on the tears you made me cry.    But that's what i get.  (For trusting you)  That's what i get.    Why does it come as a surprise.  To think that i was so naive.  Maybe didn't mean too much.  But it meant everything to me.   

Reading through the lyrics now, and remembering that I first got into this album when I was with Sarah, I’m really not surprised by which songs still stand out as being long time favorites… I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and as such, I’m a pretty wide open target for abuse, especially by those that I consider close. Perhaps I’m just very naive, but it sure seems at times that people get a perverse pleasure out of being able to fuck with other people’s hearts.

The Only Time sees him slipping away further. Having lost his innocence, and his trust in people, his life has lost meaning. Now he’s just out to “fix” himself, and as the song suggests, the only time he “feels alive” is when he’s having sex. So he does what he needs to get it.

  i'm drunk.  and right now i'm so in love with you.  and i don't want to think too much about what we should or shouldn't do.  lay my hands on Heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars.  while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.    nothing quite like the feel of something new.  maybe i'm all messed up in you.  this is the only time i really feel alive.    i swear.  i just found everything i need.  the sweat in your eyes the blood in your veins are listening to me.  well i want to wrap it up and swim in it until i drown.  my moral standing is lying down.  

That last line of the last verse I find interesting. “My moral standing is lying down“. First off, it’s an obvious double-entendre.. but it seems to acknowledge that either his morals have changed radically, or that he is simply no longer living by his moral code. It’s another reference to the idea that what he’s doing isn’t right, or at least what he’s doing is something he once believed to be wrong. You don’t find much of that in The Downward Spiral.

Finally we have Ring Finger. Here’s a guy who is being just beaten into the ground by this girl, and yet he’s convinced that if he could just marry her, it would make everything okay… that’s how I read it anyway. So you’ve got the verses where he rages about how she’s laying all this shit on him, and he’s never good enough for her.. then you have the chorus, where he begs her to marry him and make life worth living (“I get everything I need when I get part of you“).

  well you've got me working so heard lately.  working my hands until they bleed.  if i was twice the man i could be.  i'd still be half of what you need  still you lead me and i follow  anything you ask you know i'll do.  but this one act of consecration is what i ask of you    Chorus:  ringfinger.           promise carved in stone.           deeper than the sea.           ringfinger.           sever flesh and bone           and offer it to me.    you just left me nailed here.  hanging like Jesus on the cross.  i'll be dying for your sins.  and aiding to the cause.        wrap my eyes in bandages.  confessions i see through.  i get everything i want.  when i get part of you.    ringfinger.  promise carved in stone.  deeper than the sea.  ringfinger.  devil's flesh and bone  do something for me.

So there we have it. Looking back on it, it seems like an album that chronicles a life where one by one, everything lets him down [or at the very least, he sees everything as letting him down]. First, society and the system he lives in (Capitalism), then God and Religion, then life in general just falls apart for him as he’s let down by friends and lovers, his own conscience and morality, his self-control (drug and sex addiction), etc. By the end he’s grasping at anything that might give his life meaning. It’s not a happy album, and it was never meant to be. You don’t listen to Nine Inch Nails to feel better about yourself. Sometimes you just feel the need to pull off the scab and let it sting for a while.

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