Nine Inch Nails Bad Witch

[The Null Corporation; 2018]

Styles: Survivalism, Now I’m Nothing, Seems Like Salvation
Others: Black As Your Soul, All the Pigs All Lined Up, Halo 32

Every band lucky enough to sustain itself for decades is often accompanied by a staunch fanbase who perceive their earlier days with greater fondness. To them, the band’s new sound pales in comparison to their favorite albums. But for any collective, a sonic evolution is not only inevitable, but healthy.

Enter Nine Inch Nails, who are celebrating their 30-year anniversary with Bad Witch. In 2018, Trent Reznor has grown up, and his music has matured alongside him. The Reznor of today is now a collaborator, counting Atticus Ross as an official band member. He’s also a happily married father, makes coin-scoring soundtracks for movies, and gets political in his interviews (especially as of late). While his rage is still as palpable as ever, at least Reznor now has balance in his life.

Most importantly, however, is that Nine Inch Nails can make any music they want. Their recent trilogy of albums, concluding with Bad Witch, represents an imperfect snapshot of Reznor unencumbered. His hardcore contingent may believe the group has become consigned to enormous summer festivals and their younger millennial cohort, but Reznor’s experiments still show him pushing the sonic form while he excoriates his demons.

The album’s six tracks are organized into three timbrally similar pairs, with each pair also elongating in duration. The first two grungy purges are something like Year Zero’s intro “Hyperpower!” or the wall of guitars that kick in during “Everything” on Hesitation Marks. I’ll spare you a clever line describing album opener “Shit Mirror,” but it’s not among the best NIN songs. Filled with guitar noodling and electronic feedback (and a cut-to-silence troll midway), the song is so raw it edges into demo territory. It does, however, contain the delicious refrain “New world/ New times/ Mutation feels alright.” Meanwhile, “Mirror” complements “Ahead of Ourselves,” a fast-tempo energizer aligning with Reznor’s latest statements about politics, America, and certain red hat-wearing rappers with staticky lines like “Illusions of enlightenment/ With our snouts in the dirt” and “Celebration of ignorance” amid explosions of noise. Still, both songs are average, with “Ourselves” ending with a fadeout, devoid of resolution.

Bad Witch next zooms out from a single man’s struggle to the travails of the planet. With the stadium rockers out of the way, NIN venture into more uncertain waters. The instrumental “Play the Goddamned Part” is a muddy dirge, where a distorted, reverberated groove jostles against a saxophone freakout reminiscent of music from Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway (to which NIN contributed). “God Break Down the Door” showcases Bowie’s vocal influence and Reznor’s range, vibrato and all. Employing the brass again situates the song amid a smoky jazz club, but the frenetic breakbeats and acid bassline suggest an alien world.

Or perhaps it’s a parallel universe — and we’re trapped in the wrong one. Bad Witch’s last two tracks stretch out, the slow-builds of “I’m Not From This World” and “Over and Out” carefully orchestrating elements like deep bass throbs, eerie mechanical samples, and those signature piano/ukulele sounds that have made appearances for years. Exemplary Nine Inch Nails songs show a dexterity in morphing from heavy moods to light, or vice versa. Tracks such as The Fragile’s “Ripe (With Decay)” are these kinds of delightful journeys. “World” and “Over and Out” only display longer extensions of single ideas, which make them still a few points shy of the band’s best.

Does anyone remember quotes from the good witch of The Wizard of Oz? What was her name — Glenda, Glinda? Chances are, the wicked witch’s lines are easier to recall: getting Dorothy and her little dog too. We can’t seem to look away from villains, whether flagrantly vicious or bizarrely cartoonish. While it would be far less painful to live in a society where brilliance eclipses stupidity and thoughtful discussions hold more currency than insults, that reality seems remote. On Bad Witch, this place is so distant that the irrational starts to make sense. Has the world gone so mad that it can only be explained as falling under a hex? It’s as plausible as anything else.

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