Nine Inch Nails, Something I Can Never Have (1989)

NINpretty-hate-machine

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: Something I Can Never Have
Description: album track, Pretty Hate Machine
Label: TVT
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1994

I saw Natural Born Killers on its release in 1994 in downtown San Francisco. It seemed like the right country to be in at the time for a movie so steeped in American mythology: serial killers, tabloid TV, rolling news, video-paparazzo, guns, rednecks, prison, peyote, Rodney Dangerfield and, via its patchwork soundtrack, Patsy Cline, Patti Smith and Tha Dogg Pound. The soundtrack album, produced – or more accurately, curated and spliced – by Trent Reznor, belatedly introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, an act that had already gone overground thanks to MTV, Lollapalooza, an early Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy and, that very year, a defining appearance at Woodstock ’94. Because of my tardily circuitous route in, they – or he – first crossed my radar with the haunting lament Something I Can Never Have. I got hold of the debut album from which it came, Pretty Hate Machine, forthwith, and founding nothing else like it thereon.

The high-pitched, jackhammer-driven, no-prisoners industrial hubbubs that had made Reznor an alt-rock demigod in the early 90s seemed fairly tame to me, although they stirred something primal down there. Then again, I was old enough to remember Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke. None of which is to do down the success or raw bleeding power of Nine Inch Nails, whose unit-shifting impact owed much to an apparent existential holw in Reznor’s adolescent audience. It demanded filling. Industrial’s rise was concurrent with that of grunge, and both groundswell movements benefited from a record industry still geared up for the aggressive exploitation of the new thing. In the early 90s it was entirely feasible to be a multimillion-selling artist and still really fucking fed up. Pretty Hate Machine is no harder to listen to than Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar (which Reznor co-produced) – hell, some of it really is synthpop with a frown – but both provided a vital lever for disaffected American teens who were as desperate to piss off Mom and Dad as any teen before or after them. This was rock theatre, and I’m all for that. (Plus, NIN remind me of Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke …)

Something I Can Never Have would be a soul classic – classical soul, in fact – in any era, regardless of socio-cultural context. The bombast and thunderstorms are stripped away, leaving just Reznor to lay his emotional cards on the table, a former high-school musical prodigy from the cornfields of Pennsylvania raised by his grandparents but suckled by TV for maximum disconnectedness, here he is in his mid-20s, a driven and hardworking self-starter (“Back then I couldn’t do the things that I can do now”) with an outlet for a lifetime of frustration.

I still recall the taste of your tears
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore
Scraping through my head ’till I don’t want to sleep anymore

To which lost love he is broadcasting, we do not know, but her absence is making his heart grow devil horns.

I’m down to just one thing
And I’m starting to scare myself

Like every pop singer ever, he just wants something he can never have, and it speaks to us. Not all pop music can be Love Train. Some of it must be a howl of pain, a chorus of disapproval, a rumble from the jungle, a classic cry for help ie. “This thing is slowly taking me apart, grey would be the color if I had a heart.” The only fundamental difference between this and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little,” is the strategic and artistically justified deployment of the F-bomb in the third verse, to whit:

Everywhere I look you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be

Purists might argue that it’s unnecessary in a song that’s so elegantly arranged to convey melancholy and heartbreak, but as Mickey says to Mallory in Natural Born Killers before fading under the lilting synth intro of this very ballad, “Let me tell you somethin’, this is the 1990s, alright? In this day and age, a man has to have choices, man has to have a little bit of variety.” Within seconds, she is screaming obscenities at him: “Why’d you pick me up? Why’d you take me out of my fuckin’ house and kill my parents with me? Ain’t you committed to me? Where are we fuckin’ goin’?” I genuinely considered putting forward the soundtrack edit of this song to be committed to The 143, with the dialogue so tastefully interlaced into it, but it’s only four minutes long, and the album original is closer to six. Less is not more in this case. More is.

For an act so revered for making some noise, Something I Can Never Have appreciates the sound of near-silence. The repetitive piano motif is redolent of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, but it’s laid so low it never needles your ears. It’s not until one and a half minutes in that the song moves to the factory floor, where the whoosh, thud and crack of a satanic mill provide an unexpected rhythm to the tribute “You make this all go away.” At which, it does, and we’re back with just Trent, prodding at the keys with one hand and showing us what’s under his ribcage with the other. It’s like he’s had some kind of episode, but subdued it, pushed it back down, put it off for later.

That he’s technically limited as a singer adds to the rawness and vulnerability of the performance. He’s hiding behind nothing, fully exposed, deal with him. The snarl at the end of “something I can never have” is a defence mechanism. Reznor’s most famous song, not yet written for The Downward Spiral and neither yet claimed as the epitaph of a dying old man dressed as a mortician, is Hurt, but the hurt was always there.

If you’re not acquainted with the Natural Born Killers soundtrack album, remedy that. It’s like a jukebox being kicked for 75 minutes, hopping from L7 to Lard to Nusrat Fhati Ali Khan to Duane Eddy to the Cowboy Junkies, punctuated with rattlesnakes, Robert Downey Jr and Native American chanting. And Something I Can Never Have is on it.

That’s where we’re fuckin’ goin’.

Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z), Crazy In Love (2003)

Beyonce_-_Crazy_In_Love_single_cover

Artist: Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z)
Title: Crazy In Love
Description: single; album track, Dangerously In Love
Label: Columbia
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

We all know that lightning-bolt feeling of satisfaction when, by hook or by crook – and it was way more of an achievement in the latter 20th century – you identify the original source of a sample used in a modern record. Eureka! It is the musical equivalent of Poirot’s reveal in the drawing room. Whodunit, or who-originally-dunit, has been the sport of nerds since the late 80s, when a combination of available technology and a legal Wild West combined to create a plundertopia. Even when audio-recycling was reigned in by m’learned friends and samples had to be – yawn! – cleared and credited, with all the residual paperwork entailed by this musical-industrial complex, the creativity bubbled on.

In 1994, I let light in upon the magic of Portishead’s haunting Sour Times in the old-school way. I actually had a Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible album (thanks to a soundtrack label’s mailing list), which contained Danube Incident, a jangling, melancholy theme he’d composed for the show, and once I’d heard it, I reached for my copy of Dummy. Eureka! Ingeniously lifted by Geoff Barrow, it forms the basis of Sour Times. Just as The Last Time by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra formed the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve a couple of years later. Having only applied to use a five-note sample, this proved actionable. But there’s no denying the drama and the brilliance of the pilfer. Which brings us to Crazy In Love.

Like millions of others, I was knocked sideways by the stomping pizzazz of this, Beyoncé’s debut single as a solo artist. The rattlingly funky beat, those blaring horns – what a fanfare it was for this newly-minted superstar, and so perfectly calibrated for her tottering, arse-shaking warrior dance. The fact that both the beat and the horns are cut and pasted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 single Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) diminishes the song’s pop alchemy not one jot. Certainly, it was a shock when I first discovered how much of the original had been borrowed, and how little producers Knowles and Rich Harrison had adapted it, but once you’re over that, you can go back to shimmying and trying to replicate Beyoncé’s vocal aerobics.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no-no

Even that‘s tricky to sing along to. Unless you’re actually doing karaoke, it’s fine to skip the verse and belt out the chorus, but you’ll need to do some serious breathing exercises first. And some treadmill. She obviously has.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love’s
Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)
Got me looking so crazy right now, your touch
Got me looking so crazy right now (your touch)
Got me hoping you’ll page me right now, your kiss
Got me hoping you’ll save me right now
Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love

It feels so good when you nail it. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot, but she sells it so hard. Both your love and your touch haven’t actually got her crazy right now, they’ve got her looking crazy. Which is as much of an imposition, if poise is your thing. Additionally, your touch has got her hoping you’ll page her right now, which is a) technologically quaint, and b) borderline submissive. Why doesn’t she page you? Because she looks crazy? She also wants saving, like some fallen woman, and all because of your kiss. Good lord, has she been sectioned? It’s torrid stuff. And not for one moment do you disbelieve it.

Beyoncé and Mr Carter (her now-husband Jay-Z) have remodelled themselves as an alpha power couple, and it can cloy. From an Independent Woman to Mrs Carter? Really? But herein, they’re in harmony.

He’s there from the start – unless, like Smooth Radio used to, you actually favour the Jay-Z-free version – bigging her up (“ya girl, Bee”), and it really does feel like “history in the making.” Duets, we’ve had a few. But the dynamic here is so much more, well, dynamic. She’s in charge, but he gets a verse. And they complement each other: she the operatic street diva, he the cunning linguist, banging on (“y’all know when the flow is loco, Young B and the R-O-C, uh oh, Ol’ G, big homie, the one and only, stick bony, but the pocket is fat like Tony, Soprano”). It’s a bold, redolent explosion in the English language factory.

Back to the verse, and Beyoncé’s back on the tiller, explaining that she’s not herself lately (“I’m foolish, I don’t do this“) and that your love’s got the best of her (“And baby you’re making a fool of me”). You got her “sprung”, which I like, and she “don’t care who sees.” Beyoncé’s strapping voice ascends like a lark and diffuses like an exploded pyrotechnic.

None of this was on the Chi-Lites.

I made the fatal mistake of buying the parent LP, Dangerously In Love, off the back of my love for Crazy In Love and discovered, to my cost, that it followed the pattern of all R&B albums in the modern style: three good songs, all of them singles, one with Missy Elliott, and the other tracks. It’s the way. Even – to pluck a more recent example – Pharrell Williams’ GIRL, which is in the same vertiginous league, has filler. None of it’s bad, but not all of it is Happy. This need not detain us. Outside of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder’s six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From, even Motown never really traded in classic albums, and maybe that’s where this neo-R&B orthodoxy grew from. (Both Marvin and Stevie had to wrest control to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.)

Beyoncé used the string sequence from Bitter Sweet Symphony on her 2013 world tour. Eureka!