In December 2016, I opened an envelope that arrived in the mail, and a fine black dust—like magnet shavings, or gunpowder, or ground-up malice—poured out onto my countertop. It gunked my fingers, and it to this day contaminates the file drawer where I’ve kept the envelope. This was how Nine Inch Nails delivered the band’s then-new album: as something that might stain you. Three decades into making anguished, seductive industrial rock, Trent Reznor had entered his least-compromising phase yet.
Which is saying something, given that this is the guy whose defining hit lobbed the phrase I want to fuck you like an animal into karaoke bars. His 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, paired chintzy synth-pop symphonies with shockingly abject self-loathing, but his true breakthrough of confrontation came with 1992’s Broken, one of the best EPs in rock history. A sorcerer of studio production, Reznor made chainsaw-like guitars somehow gleam pleasurably, screamed fang-sharp hooks, and engineered horror-movie jump scares by switching between silence and noise. One accompanying music video depicted a man putting his genitals into a meat grinder.
He’d go on to make grand opuses, but the guerilla spirit of Broken, all these years later, animates Reznor’s latest triumph: a trilogy of short-form records released at the rate of one a year, loosely inspired by political-cultural feelings of alienation. Reznor has always also been a pop craftsman, yet 2016’s Not the Actual Events EP—the one that made a mess in my kitchen—buried its melodies deep. Its lead single, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” came off like Led Zeppelin playing through a megaphone on a blazing oil derrick. For 2017’s Add Violence, the mix was cleaner, and bright keyboard sounds reemerged. Still, every song had something off. The closing track built and then dissolved into a static-y loop over 11 minutes.