Whilst the focus of The Sound Not The Word might be on the underground, let’s be real for a moment: Nine Inch Nails are one of the best bands around. There’s good reason that they’re so popular, with a catalogue of accessible singles and well-crafted albums. Yet there’s also a wealth of B-sides, remixes, and soundtrack contributions worth taking note of too, that most fans might not check out. To keep things accessible to all, I’ve intentionally limited the songs on this list to ones that can be streamed via Spotify, and excluded those that appear on standard CD versions of albums. Sure, that vinyl-only version of The Fragile: Deviations 1 contains some excellent versions of songs, but at about £65 a copy, it’s hardly something most people will buy. So, with that in mind – and because they’re one of my favourite ever bands, and why run a blog if you can’t write about what you love? – here’s what I feel are five of the best NIN deep cuts, presented in chronological order of release.
Wish (Remix) – from Fixed
Broken is an EP full of superb songs, but few make a bigger impression that Wish. This version, remixed by J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus) simultaneously embraces the structure of the original track – keeping the verse/chorus/verse flow – whilst twisting and stretching it in to new shapes. Swathes of industrial noise are layered over the song, and drum patterns are looped, played backwards, and repeated to almost excessive degrees. The looped riff around the 5:30 mark has surely had more than a few people checking that their CD wasn’t scratched. But what makes this remix stand out is that it keeps the power of the riffs and Reznor’s vocals in the original version intact, whilst adding a whole new set of elements that make the remix feel like a whole new song in its own right.
Memorabilia – from Closer to God
Originally by Soft Cell, the original version of ‘Memorabilia’ felt like a comment on consumer culture, on the importance of material possessions to provide evidence that, yes, you have been to places you claim to. NIN’s cover sticks relatively close to the original in terms of structure, and isn’t that far removed in terms of sound (though the bleep-bloop 80s synths were replaced by industrial unease). It’s Reznor’s vocal approach that makes ‘Memorabilia’ worthy of inclusion here though. Half-mumbled, as if in the grip of some obsessive haze, the lyrics take on a sinister, almost sexual aspect (“I have been inside you / I know what it feels like” being repeated coming across as particularly uncomfortable), that, when wedded to the repetitive nature of the song structure, give it a darkly hypnotic feel, as if fighting against the grip of addiction. In some ways, it feels like a counterpoint to the crude physicality of ‘Closer’, and that it was released as a B-side to that single makes that feeling all the more notable.
Ruiner (Version) – from Further Down The Spiral (UK, Japan, Australia edition)
‘Ruiner’ is probably my favourite song on The Downward Spiral; and this remix, from one of the two versions of the Further Down the Spiral remix album is, arguably, the best of all NIN remixes. Created by then-keyboardist and programmer Charlie Clousner, ‘Ruiner (Version)’ totally strips away the prog-rock aspect of the original (Reznor claimed in interviews that the solo was his attempt at something along the lines of ‘Comfortably Numb’) and turns the track in to an industrial-electronic maze. Sure, there’s still hard guitars in there, but the strength of the song is in the synth loops and melodies, the manipulated vocals; and that it successfully keeps the catchy, emotionally cathartic heart of the original version intact. Combined with the new music created, it makes for a version (not remix – that title is telling) that is as suited for dancing to as it is screaming along to.
10 Miles High – from The Fragile & Things Falling Apart
Even though it was included on a remix CD, if you think that ’10 Miles High’ sounds like an out-take from The Fragile, you’d be right. It was originally included on the vinyl version of The Fragile, before being included on Things Falling Apart. It’s a tribute to Reznor’s ability to write a stomping riff and build a song around it; muscular and driven, with lyrics that mean everything and nothing all at once, it’s an epic conveyed over five minutes. It does also lead to the question: which is the definitive version of an album? Given that the CD and vinyl versions of The Fragile feature different track-listings, can they be considered the same album? Certainly, as someone who grew up with the CD version, it’s difficult to place ’10 Miles High’ in the context of The Fragile. Something to ponder.
The Persistence of Loss – from Still
Sharing that three note movement that pops up again and again during The Fragile, ‘The Persistence of Loss’ is emotional devastation in four minute form, a lifetime of sorrow and regret in a single song, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music Reznor has put his name to. Slow, sedate, and with a tender grace that feels like it could collapse were you to try to grasp it, ‘The Persistence of Loss’ is music for self-reflection and quiet mourning. In a lot of ways, it feels like this track – and the stripped-down aesthetic of Still as a whole – led directly to Ghosts several years later; and, regardless of what you think of the end results, there’s no denying the artistic vision in that particular album. Even separated from this context though, ‘The Persistence of Loss’ – and Still as a whole – is an under-rated part of the NIN discography.
I’ve intentionally limited myself to five, but there’s plenty of other viable candidates. Maybe ‘The Perfect Drug’, with its stuttering rhythms that seem to be moving in a different time signature to Trent’s vocals (though it’s hard to call a track with over four million Spotify plays a hidden gem). Or perhaps the anti-social rage of ‘Burn’ – a decent enough song, but one that, for me, doesn’t possess much more than rage and anger, whilst those tracks named above are all multi-faceted and emotionally deeper. You might feel that a different one of NIN’s cover versions is worthy of inclusion, such as the over-sexed take on Queen’s ‘Get Down, Make Love’, or Gary Numan’s ‘Metal’ and Joy Division’s ‘Dead Souls’, both of which stay fairly close to the source material. Or maybe there’s another remix you’d have included. There’s so many to pick from, that there’s almost no wrong choices.