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Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch Music Album Reviews

Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch Music Album Reviews
Trent Reznor’s third EP-length NIN release in the last two years is the best of the lot, with a raw and rough sound that feels both unfinished and alive.

Most Nine Inch Nails albums play like documents of sharp, turbulent mood swings. Bursts of rage give way to creeping anxiety; momentary ambience begets nihilism and noise. It’s a routine so familiar by now that fans should be able to predict Trent Reznor’s shifting temperaments like weather patterns. So when he recently announced plans to release his new music in a series of interconnected EPs, there was hope that he might, in this condensed format, locate his best angles, find a few new ones, and leave us wanting more.

Depending on who you ask, the refreshingly cohesive Bad Witch is either the final EP in that trilogy or his first full-length in five years. Even Reznor himself seems slightly bewildered by it: “It wasn’t necessarily what we thought it was going to be when we started,” he explained coyly about the project. While the six-song, 31-minute record is easily the shortest thing to ever pass for a NIN album, it’s hard to deny that it does feel distinct. Its preceding releases, 2016’s Not the Actual Events and last year’s Add Violence, were concise and sporadically thrilling surveys of Reznor’s oeuvre, but Bad Witch stands on its own. Like his greatest albums, it works best as a whole, played loudly on headphones in a dark room. Like his celebrated film scores with bandmate Atticus Ross, it successfully creates an atmosphere and invites us to explore every inch of it.

Coming from one of the ’90s most notorious perfectionists, this music has a startling roughness. Breakbeats enter and cut abruptly. Rattles and buzzes predominate. Melodic motifs recur like the whole thing’s being hammered out as the tape rolls. Reznor, who recently turned 53, sounds like he’s driven by new energy, taking pleasure in embracing unfamiliar or long-abandoned textures. Both the brevity and raggedness work in his favor, evoking in spirit if not sound the recent political records by PJ Harvey. If her artistic ideal involved allowing listeners to literally gaze upon her creative process, Bad Witch attempts to provide a similar portrait of the artist. It feels proudly like a work in progress.

Reznor plays saxophone throughout the record—he’d previously buried the instrument in the mix or relegated it to one-off soundtrack work (namely “Driver Down” from David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, an obscure gem of a song that feels like a signpost for his new direction). In the opening “Shit Mirror,” he layers his sax blasts in mournful counterpoint to the thrashing, lo-fi electric guitars. In “Play the Goddamned Part,” one of two instrumental tracks, he uses the horn for hypnotic, dissonant effect. His treatment of the instrument is a reminder of a dormant tendency for subversion—the same skill that, many years ago, allowed him to twist the components of dance music into goth anthems that could win over rock radio and mud-soaked Woodstock stages.

“God Break Down the Door” is one of a few songs where the ghost of David Bowie looms large. In that single and the extraordinary closer “Over and Out,” Reznor approximates his hero’s haunted croon from Blackstar to convey a similarly cryptic omniscience. “You won’t find the answers here,” he sings, and his warning rings true. While the album title recalls the president’s favorite metaphor, Reznor’s lyrics rarely address current events beyond a general weariness and disgust. The vicious “Ahead of Ourselves” finds him cursing humanity and debating the existence of God: Just a few songs later, he introduces a divine presence for the sole purpose of fucking us all up.

As usual, he doesn’t let himself off the hook in this envisioned apocalypse. No matter the constant, accusatory use of second-person throughout his songbook, Reznor has always been the primary target of his own antagonism. At its most beautiful and most violent, his music suggests a desire for forgiveness blocked out by crushing static of his own design. “Can this world really be as sad as it seems,” he asked in a Charles Manson-echoing early lyric. That adjective choice—not frightening or cruel, but sad—seems crucial to his outlook. In the sprawling and genuinely unsettling instrumental track “I’m Not From This World,” it’s hard to say whether the title conveys a feeling of escape or total alienation. If the catharsis of NIN albums once came from exorcising all your demons in a row, this music suspends you in discomfort.

A sense of cosmic ambiguity permeates Bad Witch. These are neither his most inviting new songs nor his most immediate, but they rank among his most urgent. While he’s not the only artist from his generation to test out the potential of abbreviated releases (Pixies precede him in this trend; My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins are set to follow), Reznor might be the first to land somewhere unexpected through the process. “Time is running out/I don’t know what I’m waiting for,” he sings in “Over and Out,” after a long, atmospheric build-up. History weighs heavily on his mind, but for the first time in a long time, Reznor sounds like he’s got his eye on the future.

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