For reasons I won’t get into here, my little brother spent the first couple weeks of ninth grade in a Baltimore psych ward. While he was in there, he desperately wanted one of his tapes, and that tape was Pretty Hate Machine, an album already a few years old at that point. Rather than bringing it to him, my dad decided to listen to it, making it about 90 seconds in– to the first “Bow down before the one you serve/ You’re going to get what you deserve” bit on “Head Like a Hole”– before deciding the album was Satanic and throwing it in the trash. I tried arguing the point with him (“No, dad, he’s talking about money! Listen to it!”), but he didn’t budge. For much of the 1990s, Pretty Hate Machine was that type of album: One that could inspire fervent, devotional need and absolute revulsion, largely depending on the age of the person hearing it. And that’s even more impressive when you consider that it’s basically a synth-pop album.
The greatest trick Trent Reznor ever pulled was convincing the world he was the devil. With his biblical-phallic band name, his reportedly furious early live shows, his fishnets worn as sleeves, Reznor staked out a position for himself on the Alice Cooper shock-rock continuum. Reznor certainly talked a big game about his industrial influences, even taking part in the Wax Trax! collective Pigface, but it wasn’t the punishing megaphone-addled arm of industrial that most informed Reznor’s debut album; it was the genre’s nascent new-wave period. Scene kings Ministry, after all, started out as floppy-haired New Romantics. And so, for that matter, did Reznor himself; Google Exotic Birds sometime.
Reznor would progress further into scraping roar not long later; 1992’s “Wish” was certainly no Depeche Mode song. But Pretty Hate Machine is haunted, synthetic dance-pop through and through. The beats have muscle, but it’s not metal muscle or pigfuck muscle or even post-punk muscle. “Head Like a Hole”, the big hit, is probably the most rock thing on the whole album, but even that song opens with “Heart of Glass”-esque percussion ripples before the drum machine thunder and weird hooting noises come in. “Terrible Lie” is built on synth-scrapes that, in less distorted form, could’ve shown up on a New Order single, and “Sin” likewise has a whole lot of “Blue Monday” in its DNA. Whenever a verse ends during “Kinda I Want To”, we get a quick little reptilian disco synth-fight. Glacial new-age keyboard tones abound, and big nasty guitars really don’t. And Reznor knew how to mine this form for all the emotional catharsis it was worth, which was a lot.
But Reznor still stood out as a rock star, maybe the rock star of the time. Largely, that’s a credit to his absolutely magnificent rock-star voice, one of the finest of his generation. On Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor sounds tough but also strained and vulnerable. There’s a huge, frustrated mall-kid aspect to his voice, to the way it goes from defeated mutter to impotent yowl in no time flat. It’s like he knows how petty he can sound, but he can’t help himself. There’s plenty of rancor on Pretty Hate Machine, too, much of it directed at some unspecific “you” that made his frustration all the more relatable: “I gave you my purity, and my purity you stole.” On “Terrible Lie”, he never bothers to specify what the lie in question is; does it matter? “Why am I seething with this animosity?” he asks, like even he doesn’t know and can’t justify it.
Much of Pretty Hate Machine concerns a simple scenario: Being young but feeling that your life is already over, that your best days are already behind you. On “Down in It”: “I used to be somebody.” On “That’s What I Get”: “How can you turn me into this/ After you just taught me how to kiss… you?” (On that extended pause, Reznor sounds like he’s 12, like that “you” will never arrive and he’s just admitted that he never made out with anyone before.) And on the time-stopping album centerpiece “Something I Can Never Have”: “Everywhere I look, you’re all I see/ Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be.” “Something I Can Never Have” is where Reznor’s vulnerability really becomes his greatest asset. His scream gone, his voice turns to pure bottomless dejection. He’s carefully considered every aspect of his life, and nothing looks good. In the words of decade-later imitators Linkin Park, he sounds like he’s about to break. Or like he’s already broken.
“Something I Can Never Have” also shows an absolute mastery which would blossom soon after into something like genius, and which was already pretty far along in 1989. Starting with nothing but a haunted, minimal piano figure and a few hushed synth tones, the track slowly lets in sputtering static, faraway door-slam drums, and quiet little counter-melodies. Guitar never shows up; it’d break the spell. When NIN would do this track live, you could practically hear the collective intake of breath at those first piano notes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s probably the single finest song Reznor ever wrote.
In later years, Reznor would push all the ideas on Pretty Hate Machine even further– into a sputtering maelstrom, depressive stillness, zoned-out trance-states, and terrible beauty. But the ideas are all there already, contained in a 10-song capsule that ends quickly enough that everything lingers. Most of the songs on Pretty Hate Machine are fairly long, but no time is wasted. This new reissue doesn’t much alter that original experience. The remaster job doesn’t sound much different from the original article, and the sole bonus track, a sexed-up B-side cover of Queen’s “Get Down Make Love”, sort of misses the point; this was, in a lot of ways, an album about not getting laid. So the real reason to revisit the album is the album itself, nothing else. Now that Reznor has retired the NIN touring institution and become a sort of Internet-friendly cool-uncle figure, it’s pretty striking to go back to that seismic first strike and re-feel all the stuff we first felt hearing this thing.
— Tom Breihan, November 24, 2010