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’.

The Sisters Of Mercy, Lucretia My Reflection (1988)

SistersFloodland

Artist: The Sisters Of Mercy
Title: Lucretia My Reflection
Description: single; album track, Floodland
Label: Merciful Release, Elektra
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Hot metal and methedrine …

Having thoroughly enjoyed the lavishly tortured imperial grandeur of Showtime’s The Borgias via Sky Atlantic over three seasons, I now hear the name in the title of this pounding song as “Lucrezia” (with an Italianate “zz”). According to extensive research on Wikipedia, I have gathered that Andrew Eldritch wrote the song for his then-new collaborator Patricia Morrison in tribute to her similarities to Pope Alexander VI’s scheming daughter. He just spelled it wrong. Who cares? Lucretia is immortalised, and sits between Marian and Alice in Sisters Of Mercy lady-worship. (And Morrison didn’t play on Floodland. Again, who cares?)

Lavishly tortured imperial grandeur is the guiding light of the second incarnation of the Sisters after all that legal argy-bargy over the name, which Eldritch won, and although he clearly resents the idea that a more mainstream rock audience “discovered” the band via the expensive studio metalwork of Jim Steinman on This Corrosion (he didn’t work on Lucretia), it provided quite a spectacle, with a band, or brand, so rooted in the underground emerging via MTV onto the freeway and blinking in the light. I had fallen in love with the first incarnation during my provincial Goth phase in 1983, enchanted by those rattly early singles Anaconda and Temple Of Love. I saw the Sisters live at London’s Lyceum in the mid-decade and felt it a religious experience. (And when I say I saw them, I peered into a wall of dry ice for an hour and occasionally caught a glimpse of a human figure.)

By the time Floodland came out in 1988, I was old enough to have a) embraced all musical forms, including jazz, blues and Bob Dylan, although not yet opera*, and b) stowed any punk-rock snobbery about “selling out”. Thus, I applauded the Sisters Of Mercy’s brazen bridgehead into crossover. I remember seeing the darkly operatic** video for This Corrosion on ITV’s The Chart Show, with its inclement weather and Fester-and-Morticia double act. The album followed through, with a form of rock not really yet stamped by the latecoming American consensus as “industrial”, and no holds barred. The Wagnerian pomp that had driven the first album was turned up to eleven. This was big music. Unabashed. Sincere or ironic? Who can ever really know? I met Eldritch once, on 6 Music, and he unironically requested that the studio webcam be switched off as he wasn’t dressed in character; however, he struck me as a very wry and self-aware chap, so, again, who can ever really know?

I know in my bones that Lucretia, in its full eight-and-a-half minute flight, is a track to drive a tank to. It consolidates all the dreams and fantasies I entertained during my Goth years of death and horror and sex and power. I don’t really have those dreams and fantasies any more, but this song still sounds magnificent. Eldritch gurgles, “I hear the roar of the big machine.” Yeah, mate, you’re making it. It’s your machine.

*I still haven’t embraced opera, unless you count Tommy.
**I know what “operatic” sounds like.