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In my wildest imagination, I couldn’t possibly envision a more apt week to receive the latest installment of nightmare fuel from Trent Reznor’s iconic, alt-industrial band Nine Inch Nails. One of the most intriguing aspects of Reznor’s dark art, dating back to the beginning with the band’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine in 1989 and perfected five years later on The Downward Spiral, was that it always felt like a foreboding, terror-filled vision of the future. This isn’t where we are, but this is where we’re heading if we give into our worst tendencies. “Happiness In Slavery,” “Wish,” “Hurt,” “Mr. Self Destruct,” are prime examples of this particular, angst-filled design. And yet here we are, in 2018, with agents of the American government actively ripping babies from the hands of their parents at the border and locking them away in steel cages, doomed to a future of total uncertainty. I don’t even think Trent saw this coming.
To be frank, as gloomy, paranoid and miasmic as the music on Bad Witch is, it falls short of measuring up to the worst impulses and actions of the current president and his administration of late. Perhaps these opening, contemporary thoughts might obfuscate my assessment of this record to those who look back on it from the future, but with a narcissistic madman holding the highest office in the land, and two more years left on his term — unless Bob Mueller acts fast — posterity is not a prime concern at the moment. Donald Trump: The ultimate insecure “Big Man With A Gun.”
As you might imagine, I’m not the only person who feels this way. Trent himself recently spoke with Entertainment Weekly and talked about the how the never-ending stream of terrible developments and ceaseless, mind-numbing cross-talk on social media caused him to modify the tone and texture of this, the last installment of a three mini-album series – long before Kanye made it cool — of releases that began in 2016 with Not The Actual Events, was continued last year with Add Violence and culminates now with Bad Witch.
“All of these EPs started out with the same question, which is, ‘Where is my place in the world today?’” he explained. “Originally, [Bad Witch] was going to be an even more extreme version of Add Violence. And what it wound up being was a much more pessimistic [message] where we’re not living in a simulation and there’s not a convenient external thing we can blame this on. At our core, [humans] are just an accident, and when fully realized we will just exterminate ourselves, and we aren’t these enlightened creatures. We’re really just animals.” A dark assessment on our species, sure, but far less dark than holding infants in cages.
The most-cleared distillation of this particular viewpoint comes through on the second track “Ahead Of Ourselves” where, over a heart rate-jacking drum pattern and disconcerting, mechanical soundscape, Trent questions the very existence of God himself while upending the hubris of his own species and lamenting our collected wasted potential. “Not quite as clever as we think we are,” he drones in a robotic voice. “When we could have done anything / We wound up building this.” Then he says we should just as well leave “our snouts in the dirt,” because really, what’s a Nine Inch Nails album without a pig metaphor tucked in there somewhere?
As opposed to Not The Actual Events and Add Violence, Trent and his later-period creative partner Atticus Ross have taken more room to spread out on this record. Two of the tracks on Bad Witch are fully instrumental. The first, “Play The Goddamn Part” feels like a tip of the cap to the dark vibe of his mentor David Bowie’s final Blackstar album, with more than a dash of the honking, sax-filled chaos found on the Stooges’s immortal track “Fun House.” The second instrumental “I’m Not From This World” is even more cataclysmic, building from a slow rumble over the span of nearly seven-minutes into a glitchy tower of discordant noise. It’s purpose is unclear, but maybe that’s the point?
The ghost of Bowie pops up again on the songs “God Break Down The Door,” and on the final track “Over And Out” where Trent seems to adopt the latter’s singers signature, off-kilter cadence and warble over a pair of compositions that can be best described as industrial psych-jazz. “God Break Down The Door” is probably the most thrilling song on Bad Witch, but also the most resigned. His quest for truth is over: “There aren’t any answers here,” he repeats over and over again. On “Over And Out,” another chaotic, sonic sprawl that stretches to nearly eight-minutes, you can almost hear him throw in the towel.
Bad Witch is a thrilling and visceral end to a truly unexpected, late-career artistic resurgence from Nine Inch Nails. When Trent Reznor quietly announced his intention to undertake this journey a couple of years back, no one, least of all himself knew it was going to end here. No one, again Reznor included, could have guessed what the world would look like at the finish line either, and it’s to his great credit that he managed to modulate his visions accordingly, abandoning entire sonic and thematic blueprints in pursuit of music that felt honest to the moment.
I think it’s probably fair to say that Add Violence remains the creative pinnacle of the series — “The Background World” is the best song he’s created since the With Teeth days in 2005 — but Bad Witch shows an artist who, while pessimistic in his macro views, remains refreshingly curious and forward-thinking in his creative pursuits. This is a record that pushes some pretty heavy ideas but ultimately challenges you to come to your own conclusions about them all. It’s anyone’s guess where he goes from here, but as Reznor boasts in “Over And Out,” “I’ve always been 10 years ahead of you / Over and over again.”
Bad Witch is out now via The Null Corporation/Capitol Records. Get it here.