Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, was released 25 years ago this week — October 20th, to be precise. It’s a pretty big milestone for NIN mastermind Trent Reznor — most who followed his career through the ’90s figured he would flame out in the self-destructive fashion detailed in his lyrics long before making it this far. But Reznor kept it together and has made a career out of continuously growing and mutating his act over the last few decades. Pretty Hate Machine now stands an intimate, personal view of an artist figuring out exactly who he’ll be, finding the key components of his sound, and making some entertaining missteps along the way.
For my part, I can’t wax poetic and pretend the milestone initially meant a lot to me. When Trent Reznor’s first album hit stores, I was an eight-year-old many years away from a time when pop music would be something that significantly impacted my life. My first exposure to NIN came through 1994’s The Downward Spiral, Reznor’s unquestioned masterpiece. I turned the angsty age of 13 two weeks after it came out, heard the infectious and tortured "Closer" all over the radio, and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. After fully immersing myself in the frighteningly beautiful and masterfully constructed hell-ride of that album, I went back to see what else Reznor created — and came across his flawed but fascinating debut.
Pretty Hate Machine is far from a perfect debut album. While most subsequent NIN albums are case studies in sonic construction and have aged reasonably well, PHM sounds dated, very much like a product of the glitz- and glam-fueled ’80s. It’s cold, mechanical, overly synth-heavy, and lacks the marriage of electronics and analog sounds that have served him so well since. It’s a sound born of Reznor’s inexperience as much as his taste — he’d go on to become a studio wizard, but here he’s just learning the ropes and showing off only a few hints of the massive, multi-layered soundscapes he’d later become known for.
Very much a product of the glitz- and glam-fueled ’80s
And that’s just the music. Reznor has never been known for being a great lyricist, but he’s grown a lot since Pretty Hate Machine — much of his first album is overly riddled with cliches and melodrama. The album’s first single "Down In It" even features a decidedly goofy vocal performance that trends far too close to rapping than you’d expect on an album otherwise filled with angsty music targeted at the goth crowd.
Despite these flaws, Pretty Hate Machine became a favorite in the NIN community, a badge of credibility you could brandish over those who only knew NIN from its first big radio hits. Among my teenage friends, the endlessly bleak "Something I Can Never Have" — over-the-top in its lyrical misery and also in its depressing musical minimalism — was the perfect argument for PHM’s status as the definitive NIN album. I’d argue in favor of the more advanced sonic landscape of The Downward Spiral and its far more cohesive lyrical narrative, but at a visceral, gut level, PHM could tap directly our teenage psyches in a way that the more mature and complex Downward Spiral couldn’t.
there’s no greater structure here than whatever emotion happeneded to be coursing through Reznor's brain
Of course, a direct line into teenage angst does not a good album make, but fortunately Pretty Hate Machine has plenty of other qualities in its favor. It’s incredibly rewarding to listen to Reznor working with the constraints he had as a young, unproven musician making an album entirely on his own, even if the sound hasn’t aged as well as I might like. It’s Reznor’s pure id on display, unfettered by any collaborators or other contributors, recorded by himself, with the songs themselves his only sounding board. Reznor’s built a career on being brutally raw, but PHM might be his most simply honest album — there’s no greater structure here than whatever emotion happened to be coursing through his brain. It’s no coincidence that Reznor’s demo tapes that formed the basis for Pretty Hate Machine were called Purest Feeling.
And while the album itself might not present the most fully-realized versions of its songs, Pretty Hate Machine’s best songs — "Head Like a Hole," "Terrible Lie," and "Sin" — have been live staples for decades, coming into full bloom on stage in a way that far transcends their humble beginnings on Reznor’s first album. The performances on the album might not be perfect, but many of the songs themselves have more than stood the test of time. Sure, Reznor will never be confused with Bob Dylan, but he also has yet to come up with a chorus more suited to being chanted by thousands of misfits than the one in "Head Like a Hole." Bow down, indeed.
Take a careful listen, ignore the somewhat dated recordings, and you’ll see that Pretty Hate Machine manages to showcase nearly every element that ends up being a hallmark of Reznor's sound for the next 25 years. The synth-heavy, funk laden flourishes, the unbridled anger and defiance towards nearly every societal institution, the minimalist balladry — it’s all here in its most nascent form. About the only ingredient missing from the mix is the buzz-saw guitar work that became essential when NIN toured the album. Reznor integrated that sound in spades on 1992's Broken EP and by the time he was creating The Downward Spiral, all the elements were in place and combined to stunning effect. PHM gives listeners a great look at everything being explored for the first time.
25 years on, Pretty Hate Machine manages to endure as an exceptionally intimate demonstration of both the sonic and emotional heights NIN would eventually scale. If Reznor stayed within the boundaries of his first album and never grew or evolved the NIN machine into the world-beating juggernaut it became, PHM would be more of a curiosity from the tail end of the ‘80s. However, there’s little doubt that Reznor’s career far surpassed the humble beginnings seen on this album — he’s now a Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist who has sold millions of albums, tours across the globe, regularly scores films for David Fincher, and is now happily married with two children. He’s far removed from the lonely loner you hear on Pretty Hate Machine, but the album works well as an inspired, shaky, and brutally honest first step towards the monster that NIN would become.