And All that Could Have Been

In the liner notes to NIN’s debut album, “Pretty Hate Machine”, the credits go like this: “nine inch nails is Trent Reznor”. A true one-man band, Reznor writes, arranges, programs and performs nearly everything on his own in the studio, bringing in occasional outside musicians and producers here and there. But when it comes to hitting the road for some live gigs, necessarily he’s got to surround himself, not only with a dynamite band but also a skilled crew for lighting, design and stage effects. For, as powerful as NIN is on record, seeing them live is an even more breath-taking experience. I was lucky enough to see their latest tour, Fragility 2.0 (deemed the best tour of the year by Rolling Stone magazine) when it stopped in Montreal on April 30th 2000, and it still ranks as one of the very best shows I’ve ever seen.

It comes down to this: kick ass song after kick ass song, all performed with contagious intensity by a fine tuned band, with awesome mise-en-scène surrounding them. Revisiting Fragility 2.0 on DVD (most of the tour was shot on mini DV, then edited on personal Macs!) confirms these impression and introduces another one: if Reznor didn’t plan it as a concept performance, he damn well should have, because I found that a surprisingly strong narrative emerged through the set list. It’s almost as if we’re watching a musical telling of one big story. It probably has to do with how NIN were touring promoting the double CD “The Fragile”, which IS a concept album, and because even their late 1980s material explored some of the same themes.

So here’s the story of a man, let’s call him Trent. He didn’t have it easy, ever, and it’s really getting to him. His resentment goes all the way to the big guy upstairs:
“Hey God, why are you doing this to me?
Am I not living up to what I’m supposed to be?
Why am I seething with this animosity?
Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology.”
Terrible Lie, he accuses his Creator. This isn’t a beautiful world He created, it’s “piss” even Him “must despise”. But Trent, as depressed and horrified as he is, still wants to believe. If only he could find “someone to hold on to”…

We don’t see it, but we get the feeling he does find someone then, but when we next run into him, it’s obvious it didn’t work out: “You give me the anger, you give me the nerve, carry out the sentence, I get what I deserve. I’m just an effigy to be defaced, to be disgraced, your need for me has been replaced…” He’s mad at the one who disappointed him and at himself, and he wants to expose “the extent of (his) sin“.

Next comes the March of the pigs, i.e. the people around Trent, in all their primitive, unthinking cruelty. Is he paranoid, or are all the pigs really after him? “I give you all that you want, take the skin and peel it back, now doesn’t that make you feel better?”

Trent is left aching, stripped down, nearly unfeeling, and he’s gonna tell one piggy who’s still around just that: “Hey pig, there’s a lot of things I hope you could help me understand. What am I supposed to do, I lost my shit because of you… Nothing can stop me now, cause I don’t care anymore, nothing can stop me now cause I just don’t care…”

He remains like this a while, uncaring, delicate, weak… frail, dragging his piggy friend with him, until they’re just the same: “And now you’re one of us, the wretched. The hopes and prays, the better days, the far aways… Forget it.” They’re both “stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss now”, where “God himself will reach his fucking arm through just to push you down, just to hold you down.” Could it get any worse?

Probably, because soon Trent is alone again, after drifting into cruelly soothing sleep, a “perfect little dream, the kind that hurts the most.” Yet there’s “no one to blame, always the same, open my eyes, wake up in flames…” But what if this was all right? What if he should just accept that God is taking everything away, smashing up his “sanity”, his “integrity”, what he “believed in,” “all that was true”? “I tried,” he observes, but now he gave up. He’s letting go, leaving himself to his Father’s mercy…

And so he goes, plunging into the sea, he’s almost peaceful now as he lets go of his rage. He abandons himself to la mer, the one lover he can trust. Her who he once felt for, he “can still feel,” “even so far away”, and melancholy fills him a moment as, thinking back of his “tired faith all torn and thin, for all we could have been, and ALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN…” And so he sinks, in full acceptance: “I descend from grace in arms of undertow, I will take my place in the great below.” The mark has been made.

Is it over yet? Why is Trent regaining some form of consciousness then? “I’m the one without a soul, I’m the one with this big fucking hole!” He’s really pissed now, whatever, wherever he is. He’s pretty sure this is temporary anyway, just more agony, “the first day of (his) last days.” And now here “she” is again, to add to his confusion. “I put my faith in God and my trust in you, there’s nothing more fucked up I could do. Wish there was something real, wish there was something true, wish there was something real in this world full of you…”

No need to say, there has been a complication. Things are strange, still, he goes towards she who “makes it sweeter than the sun.” “There is no God up in the sky tonight,” Trent decides but he feels like “Jesus Christ on ecstasy.” He’s “so dirty on the inside,” but he thinks he can “heal (her) wounds” and “set (her) free”… Though all he’s really thinking about is (“suck“), er (“suck”), well, (“suck”)

And so shall he, as he gets closer to her who lets him “violate,” “desecrate,” “penetrate,” and “complicate” her. He’s “got no soul to sell,” but it doesn’t stop him from wanting “to fuck (her) like an animal!” Through her, suddenly he’s able to reach, or at least hope to reach the big guy again: “My whole existence is flawed, (but) you get me closer to God.”

Yet when he gets to God, it’s not spirituality he finds but the same crap that drives the pigs: money. Is this what he should “bow down before,” is this “the one (he) serves?” No, this can’t be, there has to be a real God above money and everything material, “no, you can’t take that away from me…” Once again he’s in despair, “head like a hole, black as your soul.” “I’d rather die,” he rages to this “god money”, “than give you control.”

But it’s all in vain. Just like you imagined, the only god Trent could find is no better than the pigs he created: “my god sits in the back of the limousine, (…) my god pouts on the cover of the magazine, my god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene.” This is the world for you, a big bunch of starfuckers. “Now I belong, I’m one of the chosen ones. Now I belong, I’m one of the beautiful ones,” Trent mocks, but he’s really not in a laughing mood. He’s disillusioned, bitter…

hurt. There are no certainties. Is there even a reality? And why does Trent makes it so hard for himself. “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…” He looks up to a friend that’s probably not even there and asks, “What have I become? My sweetest friend… Everyone I know goes away in the end…” He can’t even fathom having someone with him still. “I will let you down,” he warns, “I will make you hurt.” This is it. No hope left. Or is there? “If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way…”

There you have it, “And all that could have been.” You know, I’m probably just sucking at straws, drawing shaky connections through a bunch of songs written over a decade, making up a story, but that’s the fun of it, getting intellectually and emotionally in Reznor’s lyrical journey. My interpretation won’t necessarily come through for another viewer, but Nine Inch Nails’ music is evocative enough to take you in anyway, even if only for head-banging purposes, because it’s mighty good at that, too! This might be industrial music, but it’s not machine-cold in the least. Reznor and his musicians rock hard, riling audiences and themselves up to the breaking point, sometimes literally! The visuals are also a treat, with great use of various lights, stroboscopes, as well as three large vertical panels on which video segments are shown. At times, I got utterly lost in the trippy visuals and the relentless beats, to the point where it was like I was really there again. In short (at last!), this is a must-buy for NIN fans as well as anyone who can appreciate damn great music.

Here’s the track-listing in clearer form:

1. Terrible lie – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
2. Sin – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
3. March of the pigs – from Downward Spiral (94)
4. Piggy – from Downward Spiral (94)
5. The frail – from Fragile (99)
6. The wretched – from Fragile (99)
7. Gave up – from Broken (92)
8. La mer – from Fragile (99)
9. The great below – from Fragile (99)
10. The mark has been made – from Fragile (99)
11. Wish – from Broken (92)
12. Complication – from Fragile (99)
13. Suck – from Broken (92)
14. Closer – from Downward Spiral (94)
15. Head like a hole – from Pretty Hate Machine (89)
16. Just like you imagined – from Fragile (99)
17. Starfuckers, inc. – from Fragile (99)
18. Hurt – from Downward Spiral (94)

I got this from “There is a hidden menu on disk two that contains lots of extras. How do you get there, it’s pretty simple. During “Head Like A Hole,” around the 11:20 mark hit “07” and “enter” (if it does not work try just “7” and enter, but play around with it because it really works). This will bring you to the extra menu. It includes:

“Reptile” live performance
Video for “The Day The World Went Away”
ninetynine commercial
“The Fragile” commercial
“Things Falling Apart” commercial
NIN and Marilyn Manson doing part of “Starfuckers” and “Beautiful People”.