Are you ready for a stunning admission? I’ve never liked Pretty Hate Machine. Ever. And I know it’s heresy for a Nine Inch Nails fan to say they can’t get into the debut album of one of their favourite artists–cos face it, if you like NIN, they’re among your favourite artists. But I’ve always found the overly synthesized textures, awkward lyrics and far too frank emotional discussions of a white boy to be really jarring to try to sit through. Pretty Hate Machine is just not the world’s greatest album by anybody’s standards. Is it the best thing that Trent Reznor could do at the time? Certainly, and I admire him for being brave enough to publish an album that was in a genre that didn’t quite exist before it. It certainly took more balls than anything I’ve ever done–that’s why I’m a critic!
Now, nearly twenty one years after its initial release, Pretty Hate Machine has been remastered from the original master tapes for the new, digital age. The problems with the initial release that badly needed sorting out: its now-painfully dated dry, tinny sound. Pretty Hate Machine is nothing if not a product of the 1980s, and it shows with every tinny, underperforming kick drum hit. The entire album was written and recorded on a single synthesizer and a guitar, so its limited tonal palette should be no big surprise. What is surprising, in retrospect, is how very not limited this record sounds. Again, I’ve never been a PHM fan, but listening to this remaster, I can feel the identification NIN’s earliest adopters must have felt. The primal rage and disappointment that you must feel to make the lyric “Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology” play.
You see, I’m really being harsh on this record cos I want to deny a basic fact: it touches me. It reflects a lot of my own experience. The painfully awkward parts of it, yes, but its youthful exuberance and enthusiasm just bowl me over so much more easily when the bass has been pumped. The music still sounds as dated as it possibly can–remasters can bring some oomph back to your bottom end, but they can’t take the 80s out of your record. But if this is what “dated and aging badly” sounds like, it’s surprisingly vital. Yet, every time I want to get into this record, Trent’s “ripped from the diary” lyrics smack me back out of it again. Listening to this album should be necessary for anyone who wants to say that Year Zero is not a modern musical masterpiece. Trent Reznor has grown as an artist in the last twenty one years in such a way that most musicians can’t in their careers.
At the end of it all, I’m always a song and a half from saying Pretty Hate Machine is actually a pretty good album, before the next cringeworthy glimpse into Trent’s bedroom activities. How many girls you sleep with use incense? Maybe that’s another way Trent has grown in the last twenty one years. So have we all. TWO AND A HALF STARS