Revisiting ‘Pretty Hate Machine’, The Most Devastating Break-Up Album Ever

'Pretty Hate Machine' is an ugly masterpiece that makes other break-up albums look polite in comparison.

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It was the late ’80s, and a young Pennsylvanian man by the name of Trent Reznor was waxing floors in an Ohio recording studio.

Reznor had fought hard to get where he was. His grandfather was an air-conditioning magnate; his father a bluegrass musician and his mother a homemaker.

As is probably clear from the music that he would later released under the Nine Inch Nails name, his childhood was not exactly a settled one. His parents divorced when he was six, and he moved in with his grandparents following the split. But despite the upset to his familial life, Reznor took things well, all things considered.

He was quiet, sure, but committed. From a young age, he’d spend hours practicing the piano and building his model planes. “He was a good kid,” Reznor’s grandfather Bill told People magazine. “Music was his life.”

It only became more so as he grew older. Throughout his high school career, Reznor became known as the musical theatre guy — fellow students talked in admiring tones about his performance as Judas in a production of Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat.

And yet Reznor was disaffected. He wanted to leave behind small-town USA, and live out his dreams as a rockstar. So he moved to Cleveland, and spent his time playing in an array of local bands, most notably the astonishingly monikered Slam Bamboo, before eventually forming a cover act of his own named Urge.

During the day he practiced his songwriting endlessly, and at night he took the janitor job at a local recording studio. He was good at both. “When that guy waxed the floor, it looked great,” his boss at the studio would later say.

Now he was growing closer to living his dream, the once out-going Reznor became increasingly withdrawn. His singular obsession with music made him different from the people around him. He didn’t socialise much, or maintain many important friendships. He just worked, writing songs about anguish and loneliness, and assembling a small catalogue all of his own.

He immediately got to work making his masterpiece – a thick wound born from his frustration, and loneliness, and solipsism called Pretty Hate Machine.

Eventually, Reznor had assembled enough songs to put out a tape, recorded during his off-hours at the studio in which he worked. Later, when a leaked version of the tape was released to the public, fans began referring to at as the Purest Feeling EP, a name plucked from one of the most fleshed-out songs. But when Reznor was working on it, it remained untitled.

Reznor played all of the instruments himself, and assembled the thing on an old Macintosh. It was determinedly lo-fi, but Reznor liked it that way — it increased the claustrophobia and paranoia of the songs. Proud of what he had achieved, he began to shop the tape around.

Within a matter of days, he got a number of potential takers. But Reznor was picky. Eventually, he signed to TVT, best known then for representing the writers of radio jingles, compelled by their offer of near total creative freedom.

Trent Reznor was in. And so he immediately got to work making his masterpiece — a thick wound born from his frustration, and loneliness, and solipsism called Pretty Hate Machine, an album which remains, decades after its release, one of the best break-up albums ever written.

Head Like A Hole

With the assistance of a record label, Reznor could have pulled in any number of session musicians to help with Pretty Hate Machine. But he didn’t. Following the formula laid down by the tape, Reznor recorded most of the instruments himself. The difference was the quality of the production and the instruments — aided by pricey equipment, Reznor beefed up the songs on the tape, recording beefier, adding texture and nuance.

Where he did recruit help was on the production team. Reznor had a laundry list of dream producers that he’d been compiling for years, and now that he was in with a record label, he began contacting people. The biggest name on the list by far was Flood, AKA Mark Ellis, a British producer who’d worked with bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure that Reznor had idolised since his childhood. Reznor reached out, and Ellis, intrigued by the material Reznor had recorded so far, came on to help.

It was the start of a collaboration that would last for years — Ellis would later produce and play the hi-hat on the most famous Nine Inch Nails record, The Downward Spiral. From the very outset, the pair clicked, finding they had a surprisingly unified vision. And so, with Ellis’ assistance, Reznor began playing around with tone.

Reznor’s choruses, poppy and clearly indebted by the flair and camp fun of Depeche Mode, stood on their own. So around them, the pair began throwing all sorts of sonic subterfuge, layering in strange, cracked melodies and a jarring low whine.

The result was a combination of the power-pop that had come before with growling noise torn from the growing sub-genre of industrial. You could sing along to songs like ‘Head Like A Hole’, the towering opening track of Pretty Hate Machine. But such songs thrummed with an all-important sense of outrage; with anger and hurt. Rather than push the listener away with his dissatisfaction, Reznor was drawing them in, only to twist the knife when they were close enough for him to reach.

Which is precisely the power of the thing. Pretty Hate Machine is at once a series of pop hooks, and a strikingly ugly record. It’s not just entitled; it’s actively pitiful. On ‘Terrible Lie’, an Atari fighting game soundtrack combined with the most self-aggrandizing aspects of Nietzsche, Reznor flails against an ex-lover with a frothing energy that borders on the unhinged. This is not a self-composed singer-songwriter listing his hurts. This is the sound of a man luxuriating in his suffering; sitting down in the mud and letting it slip back and forth between his hands.

Never before had a break-up been depicted so uncompromisingly. Every other album of heartache sounds polite by comparison. Pretty Hate Machine is a handful of glass punched into a metric tonne of mincemeat.

“Why Are You Doing This To Me?”

Pretty Hate Machine was a slow burner. It debuted at #75 on the Billboard commercial charts, but strong word of mouth and extensive radio play meant that it created a real name for Reznor. Of course, it wasn’t until Reznor released his follow-up, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, that he became something like a household name, ‘Closer’ cementing him as one of the voices of his generation.

But despite frequently being cast as a warm-up round for the masterpiece that is The Downward SpiralPretty Hate Machine has aged better than almost any industrial record of its era. Reznor would grow less attached to his debut’s pop choruses, but they are the nails that hold the thing into place, giving listeners an easy handle on proceedings in a way that allowed for more experimentation around the edges.

And then there’s the honesty. Reznor would eventually develop something of a creative persona — the voice in which he sings on Downward Spiral is exaggerated and poetic, and he only grew more artificial from there. But the cadence on Pretty Hate Machine is entirely his own, precisely because of its ugliness. So often, musicians will dart away from their worst side. On his debut, Reznor laid that all out bare.

Songs like ‘Head Like A Hole’ and ‘Terrible Lie’ would remain part of the Nine Inch Nails setlist for decades. But that album stands on its own as one of the most virulent, tortured works of sonic art ever released into the mainstream. It’s a glittering diamond of hurt. And more than that, it’s a generous one — a singer wanting to take on your sins by affirming his own. “I’m just an effigy to be disgraced,” goes a line on ‘Sin’. The way Reznor sings the words, it sounds like he’s smiling.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He Tweets @JosephOEarp.

Photo Credit: David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images