Friday, February 19, 2016

Beneath the Stain of Time, The Feelings Disappear

Perhaps the most upsetting thing about the reckless claim that Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails is the ultimate version of the song is the idea that Cash’s cover somehow validates the original, that somehow the song was just sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere waiting for a broken and aged old rock star to make use of it, presupposing that the track was not the cataclysmic climax of 4x platinum album devoured from the inside out by hordes of adoring acolytes.   

America’s strange obsession with the lyric as the primary focal point of a pop song has resulted in a persistent campaign for the stripped-down and bare.  Sure enough, there’s a haunting quality to letting just a voice and a guitar (or perhaps a piano, violin, et al.) do all of a song’s work, the phantasmal remnants of the various foregone sonic layers lingering as if memories in the white space between the notes.  It’s important to note however that this kind of distillation can never be more than an artifact of the original, its affects achieved wholly in relation to editorial- what it chooses to include and the notes the cover version decides not to play. 

In rare cases, the stripped-down cover, by the careful use of this editorial, can become a byproduct that surpasses the original.  However, when you’re dealing with a track as fully realized as Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt”, this is a tall order.  Furthermore, in eliminating the sonic elements that made The Downward Spiral such a unique and alien terraform on the pop landscape, one removes the real “meat” of the song.   Nine Inch Nails’s lone songwriter Trent Reznor was lambasted in his day for catering to the suburban mallrat crowd via his anthemic, disheartened lyrics, but the lyrics were just one part of the equation.  Reznor’s lyrics could be forgiven for populism and/or puerility because they marched in lockstep with some of the most adventurous music ever released on a major label. 

In his day, Beach Boy Brian Wilson faced much of the same criticism for not fashioning himself a neo-Keats for the hippy era, relying instead on simple, universally applicable lyrics.  The plain talk worked because they were linked to emotionally resonant explosions of ecclesiastical sound, massive shifts forward in harmony, grandeur, and compositional invention that complicated variations on prosaic phrases you had heard a million times before.  Reznor’s The Downward Spiral tilted the scales in the other direction, making a millions-selling fist-wavingly accessible record that constantly sounds like it’s falling apart, a record whose mix sounds infected with disease and rotten from miscare, eyes glossy and throat soar from staring into the abyss that stares back far too long.  It calls people pigs and talks about not even caring any more in a way that brands those declarations as damages and scars, ten shades darker than a boys-will-be-boys pissing contest.   

Most commemorations of an album will pay lip service a record’s lasting influence on the current landscape, a discursive tool that also serves to support notions of a compulsory forward momentum in music.   The trope of the “influential” record is tied to the same logic that purports Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” to be stronger or more significant than the original. It’s the rockist notion that a new idea in music only becomes noteworthy when an established member of the musical hierarchy bestows their blessing upon it.  Largely the purview of musical critics with no connection to an era’s pulse, these arguments almost always turn out to be laughably irrelevant, be it the Rolling Stones making disco passable, Madonna sanctioning rave for American shores, No Wave becoming a recognizable cultural force thanks to a few forgotten Brooklyn hipsters, and hip-hop’s hard won validation at the hands of Blondie (“Rapture”), Sonic Youth (“Kool Thing”), R.E.M, (“Radio Song”), Anthrax (“Bring the Noise”) and, ahem, Nine Inch Nails ("Down In It").

As such, people misremember Nine Inch Nails for their after-effects- a batch of aggressively whiny 90s solipsists who put guitar to synth with little to no sense of imagination (Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward, Filter, God Lives Underwater, and the protégé, Marilyn Manson). However, despite its influence, The Downward Spiral is praise-worthy specifically because there is and was nothing else like it out there.

It may sound odd to accuse white rock star Trent Reznor of being the victim of rockism, particularly now that he’s something of a streaming music business guru and an Academy Award winning composer of respected film scores, but at the time of The Downward Spiral’s release, industrial music was still a fringe genre that thrived on being a transgressive scene bolted and boxed well into the underground. Furthermore, despite being something of a poster child for the scene, Reznor was barely a participant.  Pretty Hate Machine despite nicking a few cues from Skinny Puppy, was mainly a techno-pop album and the follow-up Broken was pretty focused on hard rock, its loud guitars all but drowning out  the programming and synths.

The Downward Spiral was something different, a principally textural work which somehow nonetheless bestowed its listeners with track after track of tunes, a work of subtle detail and aching nuance that simultaneously pummeled the ear drums.  There are those who think that experimental music which rejects traditional song structures is the pinnacle of sound expression, its abstraction unbeset by the limitations of form and musical theory.  On the opposite end of that scale are the poptimists for whom traditional song structure’s formulas come off like direct language, a communication method easily understood by anyone it interacts with, its compositional limitations fully capable of containing infinite degrees of variation.  However, if one can find the sweet spot between the avant-garde and pop, it can be a place that advances both forms simultaneously, approaching the sublime.

The Downward Spiral is that sublime album, even when it’s clunky or ornery or oh-so-teenaged.   Audiences misremember the lyrics on the album (the same ones to which Cash supposedly added gravitas), which were criticized in their day not only for being juvenile, but also for being solipsistic.  Reznor’s frequent “I” statements were said to be depoliticizing industrial’s base economy of rejectionist manifestoes.  Robert Christgau declared that the album was “musically, Hieronymus Bosch as postindustrial atheist; lyrically, Transformers as kiddie porn”.   While it’s true the lyrics are far more journal entry than journalistic, Reznor’s deep dive into depression is driven by superstructures, relaying the most dehumanizing effects of religion, capital, desire and normative culture down to an intimate level.   It hypothesized that these things would neither set you free and nor make life worth living, that at root beyond the body politic and the broader pressures lies an impenetrable existential core, with potential to become nihilistic when all these barriers have been stripped away.  Despite all this, the body, ever-industrious as a machine can be, will work to find new forms of control.

In the incantations of the opener, “Mr. Self-Destruct” (1), this is made crystal clear.  Reznor rattles off a list of things that “control you”, such as “the high you can’t sustain”, “the need you have for more”, “the hate you try to hide”, et al. The song’s main work though is taking place behind these words as the feedback-driven backing track intensifies until it turns into nothing but harsh, punishing pure viscera.  “The first song on the record, "Mr. Self Destruct," sounds like I wanted it to be: the shittiest sounding thing that, by the end, just deteriorates into noise”, Reznor said of the track.  There’s SFX from THX 1138 that open the song, but they translate as S&M, a reward punish economy that you either lean in or resist to your own detriment.  Without it, the first half of the album posits, we’re all animals.  We fuck, fight, push, et al.  Reznor’s own spirit animal appears to the pig, who he first attempts to bargain with (“Hey pig/Nothing’s turning out the way I planned”) before declaring himself its king (“All the pigs are all lined up/I give you all that you want”).

The rest of the album relents from the brutality of “Mr. Self-Destruct” slightly, until the epitomical wall of sound that closes out the album on “Hurt” (which Cash left out) comes crashing down.  Throughout those inbetween moments, Reznor avoids anything that sounds explicitly like a “real” instrument.  If there’s a guitar, it’s decayed and detuned, rotten or tape-warbled.  Even when things are melodic, there’s an extra focus on counter-melody and noise, constantly analyzing and inverting wave frequencies.  It’s environmental discord as allegorical cue-in to depression, unable to ever strip away the rust, the shit-feel, the malaise.  “Everything’s blue in this world.” 

As a solipsistic record, The Downward Spiral’s largest concern is indeed the self. Its children may be nu-metal with their aggressive complaints, metamorphosed by an army of white males into misogynistic tirades against exes and vitriolic howls decrying how hard it is to not be allowed to stab people. But what this makeshift trench coat mafia discarded was how the hatred on TDS was either directed inward or only reflected outward at a great cost.  This is transparently evident in the sonic clutter, the menagerie of broken entrails hanging from the skeletal remains of each melody.  That a deranged, desolate song like “Closer” wherein sex is used to “get away from myself” and is “the only thing that works for me” can be used unironically in a film like Magic XXL as a slab of unproblematic sensuality speaks more about our willingness to the contort the music to our needs than its implicit simplicity.

The album builds to the disgusting and degrading “Big Man With A Gun”, a song whose lyrics have absolutely no redeeming qualities.  This a composition driven by a propulsive EBM synth arpeggio that recalls DAF and Front 242, who used the genre’s accellerationist thrust to detourn the intrinsic fascist bent of technocratic futurism.  Appropriately, Reznor angles this fascism inward, concentrating on his own destructive bent towards power.  The song was rightly condemned out of context by music’s 90s anti-speech stock villains, C. Delores Tucker and William Bennett, who also mistakenly identified it as a gangsta rap song (further proof that conversations regarding TDS tend to center around those who ignore its music).   “Big Man With a Gun” is Reznor or his album’s protagonist hitting rock bottom, one last bout of acting out in the form a fantasy of skullfucking a victim to death.  Though the gender of his target is never explicitly identified, the song’s phallocentricity (“I’m every inch a man”) and its equating of gun violence with rape culture makes it a song that at the very least addresses patriarchy.  Reznor has stated that he intended the song to be about his disgust with hardcore rap lyrics and nearly left the song off the album.  However, even though it may be the most dispensable piece on the album, it’d also be hard to imagine the tonal narrative without its disruptive chaos. 

The album’s final quarter immediately following “Big Man With a Gun” disengages from rage and focuses on, as a NIN/Aphex Twin remix puts it on the subsequent remix EP, the beauty of being numb.  “A Warm Place” (2) may be the most tranquil piece Reznor ever composed, but even it cannot shake an unsettling tremolo that disturbs the balance of the track throughout.  “Eraser” commences with what sounds like ethnic or Fourth World instrumentation (vaguely recalling David Sylvian’s “Brilliant Trees”), but the rhythm is weak and flimsy (when I was a teenager I always thought it sounded like someone blowing into the end of a straw).  It’s an attempt at Zen erected on a crumbling artifice.  It’s not long before this rickety backing is replaced by pounding tribal drums and squeals of “erase me/kill me”.   

Though conceptual, The Downward Spiral’s cycle was not esoteric or mysterious like old prog-rock concept albums.  It had a basic arc that culminated it its finale and strongest song, “Hurt”.  Watching the song as a closing encore at Madison Square Garden in 1999, even those who hadn’t wrestled with depression, self-harm, drugs, social anxiety, or just generally being a social outcast, still understood the impact and the weight of every word, translated into simple verse with the masterful penmanship of someone who just wasn’t made for these times like a gothic crown prince of shit Brian Wilson.   On Cash’s “American” series of albums, Cash formed a habit of adapting more modern artists like Beck and Soundgarden to fit the man-in-black mold and “Hurt” was a perfect choice for its latest iteration, but there was something intangible lost in translation; the scrim of lingering feedback that opens the track, the purposefully pitch bent guitar sound, the warbled tape that slights the vocals as if Reznor is undercutting himself before he even gives himself a chance to speak.   Where Cash sings with weariness, he also sings with confidence, but Reznor is still unsure of himself until the final phrase.

When the percussion rolls in on a basic four-to-the-floor pattern, it gently nods to a crescendo, but doesn’t quite prepare the listener for just how awesome it will be.  And it’s a shock, a pre-Shyamalan twist, completing the finale of perhaps mainstream music’s bleakest ever album on a note of redemption. “If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way”.  Reznor sings these lines with relative restraint until the final three words “find/a/way” are punctuated by a wailing noisy beacon of sound and nearly two solid minutes of feedback drone that just drifts in and out like a pulsating wound.  Here is the zen that the album’s previous tracks were searching for and also the realization that put all of those hundreds of kids in Madison Square Garden in tears, the idea that you’re allowed to continue, that you can keep yourself.  For all the Christ allusions and its many denunciations (particularly on “Heresy”), Reznor was forgiving us- for being mortal, for being human, for being male, for being so goddamned hurt and confused all the time.   It was salvation by way of confession, which only made sense in that final chord, the last moment of the journey, a moment of clarity, which could either be suicidal absolution or total affirmation.  It was an acknowledgement that control and suffering linger on, but so do we. 

(1)    Reznor was lead down the rabbit hole to industrial through his college adoration of synthpop.  On Soft Cell’s final album, in which they were following the muse of Throbbing Gristle far more than Northern Soul, they had a song named “Mr. Self-Destruct”.  Reznor had to be aware of this.  In fact, he covered Soft Cell’s “Memorabilia” as a B-side from the Downward Spiral sessions.

(2)    In a weird bit of cryptomnesia, the melody for “A Warm Place” is almost note for note a copy of facsimile of a David Bowie ambient track recorded for a Japanese commercial called “Crystal Japan”.  Reznor acknowledged that he had plagiarized the song without knowing it and confessed to Bowie, who gave Reznor his blessing and apparently liked Reznor’s version better than his own.  

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