Album Review: Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch

Truthfully, one of the main reasons I sat down with Bad Witch, the latest release from Nine Inch Nails, is because the opening track is titled “Shit Mirror”—an unintentionally hilarious and bizarre phrase, especially to use for the name of a song.

Something is keeping me at an arm’s length from really liking Nine Inch Nails. In 1994, a cassette copy of The Downward Spiral was the first thing I ever purchased that came with the ‘Advisory Lyrics’ sticker attached to it—and even though I was completely unready for what was contained on that cassette (I was 11 at the time), you’d think that I would have, at some point, figured out how to fully embrace Trent Reznor.

However, even after all this time, that has yet to happen.

Bad Witch is the third and presumably final in a series of smaller albums (don’t you dare call them EPs) that Reznor has released, beginning with 2016’s Not The Actual Events, and continuing with last year’s Add Violence.

Comprised of six tracks, two of which are brooding instrumentals, the effort finds Reznor still caught in the space between the past sounds of Nine Inch Nails, juxtaposed along side a glimmer of trying to look ahead into the future, all while being haunted by the ghost of David Bowie.

There are a lot of things about the music of Nine Inch Nails that doesn’t age well—in the case of Pretty Hate Machine, it’s the terribly dated sounding synthesizers; with subsequent releases, like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, it’s a strange blend of chintzy sounding keyboards and electronics with heavily processed and ‘angry’ guitar riffs.

Time has also not been very kind to Reznor’s tortured and angst-ridden lyrics, along with his brooding persona. So perhaps it’s all these elements that have kept me from fully accepting Nine Inch Nails—it seems like the kind of music that you can identify with, truly, for a short period in your life, but once that time has come and gone, it’s not something you can take with you, or something that grows with you into the next part of your life.

Bad Witch is structured to decelerate after it begins—it opens with its most aggressive, cacophonic material, and as it progresses, the tone noticeably shifts into a more pensive, reserved direction. The aforementioned “Shit Mirror” is, unfortunately, one of the album’s weakest, or at the very least, a less successfully executed track. It begins with a blast of effected, distorted guitar theatrics and percussion that sounds like it has been chopped to bits, and then reassembled. Above it all, Reznor howls angrily like he’s still in his late 20s or early 30s—not 53.

Last month, shortly after the release of Bad Witch, I was discussing Nine Inch Nails with a friend of mine and they said that at times, they can sound so hokey, but Trent has always known his way around a mechanical groove—and that got me thinking.

Stereotypically, goth kids were supposed to listen to Nine Inch Nails because it was dark, angry music. But it’s still pop music, and buried somewhere in all those effected guitar riffs and keyboard sequence snarls are Reznor’s mechanical grooves. Really, for a guy who can write a song about self-loathing, featuring a refrain that includes the expression “I want to fuck you like an animal,” and turn it into a hit, there has to be something accessible about it, and that’s the slithering, slinking groove it slides into, effortlessly, within the final moments.

Even with “Shit Mirror” being one of the weaker songs on Bad Witch, Reznor does guide the song, rather quickly too, into an impressive mechanical rhythm. However, he doesn’t repeat that trick again on the album’s next track—the weakest of the set—the repetitive and noisy “Ahead of Ourselves.”

Getting all that angst out of the way, Bad Witch becomes more palatable, or at least, opens itself up to be a more interesting listen with its final four songs.

I wasn’t joking around by saying this effort is, in part, haunted by the ghost of David Bowie—touring partners in the mid-90s, and collaborators on the Reznor reinterpretation of Bowie’s 1997 single “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the experimental and dissonant sprit of latter-day Bowie casts a long shadow on tracks like the instrumental “Play The Goddamned Part,” “God Break Down The Door,” and the sprawling closing track, “Over and Out.”

At times its simply because there’s a lot of brass on Bad Witch—I don’t remember Reznor calling in a horn section in the past, but they are very prevalent here; in other cases, it’s Reznor attempting to do his best Bowie impression, like the vocal delivery on “Over and Out”; other times, it’s just a tone, or a feeling, and you can’t really pinpoint that influence, but you know that it is very present.

On the instrumental tracks, “Play The Goddamned Part” and “I’m Not From This World,” you can hear Reznor and company really loosening up, and stepping out of that agro-digital sound. On the former, a manipulated slapping sound echoes cavernously as the distended sounding horns tumble in, creating a real sense of tension and dread; on the latter, a collection of low, swirling, and ominous sounds build to an explosive climax that blends them all together for the song’s second half.

The album’s first (and probably only) single isn’t exactly the kind of song that is catchy, or one that screams ‘radio ready,’ though in 2018, I don’t think getting airplay on a hard rock station is something Trent Reznor is concerned with. Arriving in the middle of Bad Witch, “God Break Down The Door” is, in a sense, an amalgamation of everything on the album—a horn arrangement that runs throughout its four minutes, glitchy and dated sounding keyboard ripples, jittering live percussion, and a near-Bowie-esque inflection on the way Reznor delivers the song’s repetitive, mantra-like lyrics—and some guitar squalling for good measure in the second half. It’s not a bad song, but it’s also not the best here, and it’s a bit of a dizzying experience hearing it; there’s just simply so much happening all at once, there are times where it seems like this many layers, going in so many different directions, shouldn’t be working the way it does.

In truth, I opted not to listen to the two previous Nine Inch Nails releases in this series of three—mostly because I wasn’t super interested in sitting down with them, in earnest, and after hearing previews of them when they were released, they both seemed like they were brimming with more of the same: the collision of New Wave keyboard and programming theatrics, distorted guitars, and shouted, aggressive vocals.

With that being said, Bad Witch seems to take Reznor toward a different place—or at least, it hints at taking him to different place. The pensive, reflective moments here recall some of the more serious moments on The Fragile, though there is no indication that Nine Inch Nails, as a band, are suddenly mellowing, or becoming more inward, as Reznor and his stable of collaborators look ahead.

Sitting with Bad Witch for a number of weeks now, I find I’m still at odds with it—parts of it are embraceable, though parts of it are still pushing me away. In that sense, it’s like every other Nine Inch Nails album I’ve ever tried listening to in the last 24 years. At this point in his career, after retiring the project then resurrecting it only a few years later, nothing Reznor releases under the NIN moniker is going to be as game changing or career defining as The Downward Spiral, and at 53, we shouldn’t hold him to something like that. However, Bad Witch is a record that attempts to bridge and reconcile different parts of his canon alongside the varying demographics of his fan base.

Bad Witch is out now via Null.