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The Softer Side of Nine Inch Nails

by Raymond Cummings

The Softer Side of Nine Inch Nails

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The downside of building a winning brand is that, in triumph, certain expectations are set. Nine Inch Nails are a case in point. Once Trent Reznor's industrial-pop juggernaut became known for a bevy of singles heavy on caustic guitars, impudent synthesizers and full-front lyricism (think "Terrible Lie," "March of the Pigs," "Wish," "Starf*ckers, Inc.") it was difficult for the public at large to separate the group from the idea of sonic immensity. As a result, it's easy to forget that Nine Inch Nails' oeuvre is well-stocked with gentle, brooding tracks.

The spare, anguished ballad "Something I Can Never Have," from 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, was a precursor to the hushed interludes and whispers that would pepper Nine Inch Nails' studio albums and remix platters in the years to follow. The clipped, quaking "Help Me I Am in Hell" was next -- a feathery burst of blues classical that stood out like a sore thumb amidst all the scorched-earth slag on 1992's take-no-prisoners EP Broken. The syrupy, trickling Zen ooze of "A Warm Place" surfaced on 1994's The Downward Spiral; a half-decade later, The Fragile sighed with the primo seltzer soak of "The Day the World Went Away." "Right Where It Belongs," meanwhile, poignantly concluded 2005's With Teeth with a tinkling haze of static and piped-in crowd noise: a portrait of a dissatisfied artist at a crossroad.

But the low-intensity epics live outside NIN's proper studio albums: 2002's odds-and-ends collection Still is chockablock with ponderous pianos, and the quieter moments on 2008's Ghosts I-IV pulse with a distended, experimental elegance. For more, plumb the remix platters -- 1995's Further Down the Spiral holds some gems -- or belly flop into hours of the fizzy orchestral snapshots of the Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtracks Reznor scored with Atticus Ross.

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