A pop industrial classic, Pretty Hate Machine may be more responsible for the ensuing popularity of industrial acts than any other single album.

It is a masterpiece of driving beats, insidious melodies, and painfully angsty lyrics.

From a critical view point, the album is ostensibly about Reznor's relationship, or lack thereof, with his girlfriend. Songs like Down in it and Kinda I want to describe to longing and desperation of a man in love, while Sin is the anger and pain of a man in love.

The problem with this interpretation of the album is this: the most popular song on it, Head Like A Hole, doesn't fit. It is a cry of the anguish of an oppressed and beaten man fighting for freedom... While I can see the argument that this describes marriage/long term relationships perfectly, I don't believe it is an accurate portrayal of the song's intent.

Nine Inch Nails' first album and second release (preceded by Down In It, a single for the third song on Pretty Hate Machine), Pretty Hate Machine mixed together the heavy electronic presence in industrial music with catchier melodies and more personal lyrics than typical of the genre, giving the songs a more mainstream structure and making the sounds more accessible to more listeners. The influence of industrial music is definitely still there. Trent Reznor, mastermind and typically sole member of Nine Inch Nails, has even said himself that "Down In It" is, musically, a rip off of Skinny Puppy's "Dig It" (released in 1986, three years prior to Pretty Hate Machine). Don't get the wrong idea though, the album as a whole isn't some collection of ripped off melodies and styles.

Though Pretty Hate Machine was released at the end of the 80s and makes heavy use of synthesizers, the album avoids the typical sounds of 80s New Wave that, with the exception of Depeche Mode, pretty much went out with the decade. This in part can be attributed to Nine Inch Nails' inclusion of non-electronic instruments in its sound. Guitars, drums (albiet sometimes through electronics), piano all feature prominently in the music, classifying the release more as something like "electronic rock" more than anything else. Many Nine Inch Nails fans I've talked to cite this as their favourite album. Most of Nine Inch Nails' later material, at least at the time of this writing, is harsher and less accessible to new fans that aren't accustomed to heavier or stranger music (I would say The Fragile is near as accessible as Pretty Hate Machine to new fans, having closer ties to rock than industrial on many songs, if not for its two disc length) than Pretty Hate Machine.

Nine Inch Nails live, even then, was a lot harder (and violent to its equipment). According to various interviews with Reznor, sometimes people who had seen Nine Inch Nails live would buy Pretty Hate Machine as a result of the performance, only to be disappointed the music wasn't as a hard as the concert experience and actually somewhat poppy. Nevertheless, Nine Inch Nails' popularity boomed in 1991 with a show-stealing spot on the Lollapalooza tour. The album spawned three singles: "Down In It" (1989); "Head Like a Hole" (1990); and "Sin" (1991). Lyrically, Pretty Hate Machine was a lot more personal and far less political than most industrial acts of the time. The songs are full of angst and depression with music to match: The haunting and melancholy piano work on "Something I Can Never Have"; the angry guitar riffs of "Head Like a Hole"; the reserved steel drum of "That's What I Get"; etc.

Songs:

  1. Head Like a Hole (4:59)
  2. Terrible Lie (4:38)
  3. Down In It (3:46)
  4. Sanctified (5:48)
  5. Something I Can Never Have (5:54)
  6. Kinda I Want To (4:33)
  7. Sin (4:06)
  8. That's What I Get (4:30)
  9. The Only Time (4:47)
  10. Ringfinger (5:40)
Total running time: 48:41. All songs written by Trent Reznor.

If anyone's wondering, by the way, the image on the cover is a manipulated photograph of some type of farming tool, not a ribcage or microphone. The packaging was designed by Gary Talpas, who continued to do package design work for Nine Inch Nails until after Closure was released in 1997. Also, big fans of Nine Inch Nails or this album may want to check out the Purest Feeling bootleg, which contains a couple songs that didn't make the final cut, "Purest Feeling" and "Maybe Just Once," most likely due to their heavy 80s sound.

The TVT Problem
The album was released on TVT Records and featured no less than five different producers working on various songs (Trent Reznor, Flood, Adrian Sherwood, John Fryer, and Keith LeBlanc). The record company's assignment of a variety of producers* (such as John Fryer, who Trent Reznor didn't get along with) in addition to other jerk-off practices such as releasing the "Down In It" single against Reznor's wishes, sticking a remix of "Down In It" on Pretty Hate Machine rather than the final version Reznor wanted to use (which still hasn't seen the light of day), wanting control of anything and everything Reznor was involved in musically (e.g., TVT threw a fit when Reznor did the vocals on Al Jourgensen's cover of Black Sabbath's "Supernaut" for his 1000 Homo DJs project), and telling Reznor to restrict Nine Inch Nails' sound to the 'industrial pop' style on Pretty Hate Machine for all its releases. In addition, Reznor claims that the royalties he received from the sales of the Head Like a Hole EP should have been equivalent to the royalties he would have received for a full-length album due to the EP's length.

Fueled by this anger and other problems, Reznor and Flood recorded Broken, Nine Inch Nails' next release, in secret while the battle between Reznor and his record label continued. Eventually an agreement was reached and Reznor was allowed to leave TVT, provided a small percentage of the money he makes on Nine Inch Nails material still goes to TVT (thus the credits for later Nine Inch Nails releases includes mention of TVT Records, despite Reznor being with Interscope Records now).

*Flood wasn't assigned by TVT but someone Reznor just really wanted to work with. Due to already set plans with Depeche Mode, however, Flood was only able to work with Reznor on "Head Like a Hole" and "Terrible Lie." Reznor and Flood, fortunately, would later work together on later Nine Inch Nails releases Broken and The Downward Spiral.

Album: Pretty Hate Machine
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Label: Island Records Ltd
Year: 1989
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Toned down versions of potentially heartbreaking songs.

Nine Inch Nails's debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, contains many great songs. The lyrics sound like they came straight from the heart of a genuinely heartbroken, pitiful individual who was coming to terms with the realisation that the religion he was brought up to believe was a sham. The obligatory love themed songs deal with being rejected by a former lover, but even they seem to be more about rejecting the belief in a god, with the singer feeling betrayed by religion more than any lover.

The music is catchy, and if it wasn't for the anger and sorrow of the lyrics, many of the cuts might have been very popular. Trent Reznor is always aiming for something more interesting than popularity, however, and has a talent for writing good hooks and hummable melodies, which he then hides inside a soundscape so harsh that you barely even realise the songs have melodies at all.

Unfortunately, unlike Nine Inch Nails's later releases, this album has no such soundscape. This was apparently the fault of the record label, who insisted Trent Reznor tone down his edgy live act for this studio release. As a result, Pretty Hate Machine contains uninspiring versions of otherwise emotionally charged songs. This album wouldn't seem out of place next to Pop Will Eat Itself's debut Box Frenzy, which is frankly a crime for songs with such potential.

The only song that survives this transformation unscathed is Something I Can Never Have. Like The Downward Spiral's poignant Hurt, it is stripped down to barely more than the vocal, allowing you to focus on the singer's despair and regret.

To hear this album's songs properly, you'd be much better off buying Nine Inch Nails's live album And All That Could Have Been, or ideally, seeing them live. Their raw energy is amazing, but this album doesn't even try to capture it.

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