Near the beginning of Nine Inch Nails’ cover of Adam and the Ants’ “Physical (You’re So),” as the guitars are still feeding back, having not yet crunched their way into riff, Trent Reznor whispers something barely audible. You can really only hear it if you know it’s there. If you’re listening for it. If you’ve got your speakers turned all the way up, or maybe if you’re listening to it with headphones. If you’re listening to it in the background—if you’re trying to do anything else at all—you’ll almost certainly miss it.
Now, in the age of Wikipedia, I know what he whispers. (“Eat your heart out, Steve.”) I know who Steve is (Steve Gottlieb, founder of the album’s independent record label, TVT Records), and why Reznor wants him to eat his heart out. (Gottlieb refused to let Reznor out of his contract, sparking ongoing legal battles between the two.) I know it’s a small, juvenile “fuck you” from an angry artist to his record label.
But . . . when the album came out? Pre-streaming music, pre-internet, pre-me knowing much about the world at all? I thought I’d heard something I wasn’t supposed to. I thought I—probably not I alone , but certainly only I and a very small subsection of listeners—had heard Reznor talking to me. I thought I’d heard a subliminal message.
Nine Inch Nails’ Broken was released in 1992, three years after their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine . Eight tracks in total, the initial EP included the first six tracks on a regular CD and two additional cover songs (the aforementioned “Physical” and Pigface’s “Suck”) on a three-inch “mini-CD.” The copy I owned, received as a birthday present after the first pressing of 250,000 copies proved too costly for a two-CD EP, was only one CD: tracks 1-6, then ninety-one “tracks” of one second of silence each, providing a minute and a half of quiet (of waiting, of wondering if that was it, of anticipation ), before the final two cover songs, as tracks 98 and 99.
I remember opening the gift wrap and being immediately fascinated and intrigued by the packaging. Everything about it was different. It was cardboard, instead of plastic like a normal jewel case, and opened in a trifold: left then down then right. On the cover, a simple blurring of orange and red, looking like the heart of a fire, and a subtle lowercase n , under which it said nine inch nails broken . All lowercase, all the n ’s in the band name backwards. Unfolded, the packaging looked like a T , with lower case n ’s on the inside of the left and right folds, an i on the CD itself. nin , it flamed at me.
I didn’t know who Nine Inch Nails were (I know I’d heard Pretty Hate Machine ’s single “Head Like a Hole,” but I’d been too young, too sheltered, to do much more than block out any memory of the song), but I recognized that n from kids’ shirts at school. The kids who seemed too cool for me, the kids who seemed mysterious, dangerous. Like trouble, I’d thought. I remember wearing cardigans, rayon shirts. I didn’t know, much less hang out with, any goth kids, any metal kids. I was years away from knowing any crust punks, heshers. If I knew anything at all about them it was that they were into devil worship, probably weird rituals, maybe crazy sex things. Like the report on the Loch Ness Monster I remember doing in grade school, only a few years earlier, I maybe wasn’t totally sure I believed, but I certainly didn’t not believe.
“Ahhh,” I remember thinking, putting two and two together. “Those shirts are band shirts.” I walked through most of middle and high school confused about most of the world around me. This was one of the first moments I remember of figuring something out, something about the unknowable world around me finally revealing itself.
There are moments—the two instrumental tracks, most obviously—that in atmosphere and mood hint at Reznor’s future in scoring films; and there are beats throughout that remind you that Reznor could be, and has been on occasion, an interesting hip hop producer. But, most of all, Broken is the obvious gateway from Pretty Hate Machine to The Downward Spiral . But it’s harder than Pretty Hate Machine , faster, heavier. Reznor said in an interview that he wanted Broken to be “an abrasive, hard-to-listen-to thing.” It’s guitar riffs and power chords where PHM had been drum machines and synth.
It’s a little like Megadeth if Dave Mustaine had been kicked out of Ministry rather than Metallica. A little Alice in Chains if Layne Staley had been doing as much coke as heroin, a little like Soundgarden fed through a construction crew’s heavy machinery.
It’s pretty fucking metal, is what I’m getting at.
I’m not sure why my friend Jason gave me the EP. Perhaps he thought I’d like it, or maybe he was trying to help me out, help make me cooler. He was the same friend who, during my junior high school years, turned me onto Nirvana, recorded for me a tape of his copy of Pearl Jam’s Ten , lent me the CD single for Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” among countless other lendings and turning-on-tos. I certainly needed all the help and guidance I could find. I didn’t seem to know any of the bands the “cool kids” were listening to. Maybe it was just something he wanted for himself and, as is so often the case with presents, got it for me.
I remember taking the CD into my room to listen with my friends. Closing my door, like we—like I —knew it was to be listened to behind closed doors. I remember opening that trifold case, removing the CD like I had to be careful. Like it held secrets I wasn’t sure I was supposed to hear. I remember placing it in my ’90s-era, CD-playing, big box of a stereo, closing the CD player lid, hitting play.
I remember, later, going over this packaging like a detective. I often trace my interest in, and admiration for, marginalia back to early McSweeney’s and Sam Kieth including weird little notes in the copyright indicia of The Maxx comics, but record liner notes, with thank yous and inside jokes and other weird ephemera, gave me lots to obsess over first. Broken , despite its relative minimalism, was a kind of treasure trove.
“Caution: not for use with mono devices.” Was my stereo a mono device? What did that mean, if it was?
“Barks and roars: Maise.” Was Maise Reznor’s dog? If I listened close enough, would I be able to hear a dog’s contribution to the album?
“The sound on this recording was influenced by my live band in 1991 featuring: Richard Patrick , Jeff Ward , James Woolley .” That live band influence explained the guitars, how much the album rocked .
(Richard Patrick would leave the band while Reznor was recording The Downward Spiral to form Filter, whose own debut album’s liner notes would include, “Statement: There is a certain subset of musicians who for reasons unknown adhere to the false premise that ‘electronic’ music or the tools involved imply a lack of creativity or inspired performance. Technology in the hands of creative, intelligent individuals is a tool for art, not a hindrance. Filter, being members of the current millennia, admit freely to the use of such devices.”)
Then, after a short list of thank yous: “No Thanks: You know who you fucking are.” I didn’t know at the time, but . . . attn: Steve Gottlieb?
And, finally, “The slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains.” What??
But, before all that pouring over packaging and liner notes, we had to listen to this thing . . .
The album opens with “Pinion,” a minute-long instrumental track of short, ascending, distorted power chords. It builds itself up out of silence, each pulse getting a little louder, like it’s revving itself up.
With each successive warning shot of a ground-up power chord, I remember turning my stereo down. Hand on the giant volume dial, slowly turning it lower, lower. Like the inverse of Spinal Tap’s amps going to eleven, I remember getting my stereo all the way down to, like, two.
“We can’t hear it,” one of my friends said. Probably Jason, though it could have been any of them. Maybe they all said it.
“I don’t want it to get too loud,” I said. “You have to listen close.”
What was I afraid of? Afraid my parents would hear? Sure. But why? Afraid of the rising chaos it seemed to be foretelling? A little. Afraid of something else, too? Yes.
At the end of “Happiness in Slavery,” Reznor repeats the title of the song, over and over, again and again. The full last minute and a half. “Happiness in slavery . . . happiness in slavery.” Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen times.
Then, in the last six seconds, the music cuts out and Reznor whispers. “Happiness. Happiness. It controls you. Happiness. It controls you.”
It’s barely more noticeable than Reznor telling Steve to eat his heart out. In fact, I think this was the whisper I heard and convinced myself was a subliminal message. Walking home from my bus stop, listening to it on my Walkman, via the tape I’d recorded my CD onto. With my headphones on, I could listen as loud as I wanted. Rewind, listen again, listen closer, harder. It’s so quiet. When you listen close enough, you can make out the “controls you,” but, before that, just a [mumble, mumble]. “ It controls you”? “ I control you”? I wasn’t totally sure, couldn’t quite tell. I had to turn the volume up so loud, listen so intently, surely I wasn’t supposed to hear that. And that’s what subliminal messages were, right? Messages some part of your brain heard while not recognizing. Heard just enough to want to act on? If you played “Revolution 9” backwards, it told you Paul was dead. Those two kids in the ’80s heard Judas Priest tell them “Let’s be dead” and “Do it” and they shot themselves.
I returned to the CD case, my primary text. It included lyrics for the four “official” tracks. The lyrics for “Happiness in Slavery” conclude with “Just some flesh caught in this big broken machine,” the last lyrics before Reznor’s minute and a half of repeating the title. Before anything about something or someone controlling me.
I became convinced Reznor was trying to subliminally hypnotize me. To control me. Or make me believe something was controlling me. Reznor himself? The song? Happiness? Satan?? Did the fact that I heard it, had found and deciphered Reznor’s message, thus making it no longer subliminal , mean it would have more or less of an effect on me?
I don’t know if I actually believed any of that, but . . . I didn’t not believe it. The devil works in mysterious ways.
Broken is harder than I remember, but also more . . . emo. Way more. “This is the first day / of my last days,” are Reznor’s first lyrics of the EP. “I built it up / now I take it apart / climbed up real high / now fall down real far,” he continues, finally culminating in “Wish there was something real, wish there was something true / Wish there was something real, in this world full of you.” Stripped from the heavily distorted, crunching guitars and Reznor’s peak-’90s snarl, the lyrics almost seem cribbed from a Fall Out Boy or Dashboard Confessional song.
I tell my wife my I-think-very-smart-and-clever observation and she’s like, duh . “That’s what everyone always made fun of him for,” she says. I tell another friend and he says, “I mean . . . I get that he sounds so emo . . . but I think that’s because all emo bands wanted to sound like Reznor . . . As kind of an adult who was a little older than the target for the emo crowd, I could totally see how these emo bands were just taking from two sources: Nine Inch Nails and Pinkerton .”
Which, sure, I know and get what they’re saying. But that doesn’t fit with my memory of the album. Nor how I thought about it at the time. It was too heavy to be so emo, too dark and dangerous to be so sensitive.
After Reznor emotes that this is the first day of his last days, but before he wishes there was something real, something true, he sings, “I put my faith in god and my trust in you / Now there’s nothing more fucked up I could do.”
I grew up pretty religious. I wouldn’t say overly so, but . . . I believed in the devil. Knew he was out there, trying to tempt me. The world was full of temptation, negativity, cynicism, sin. I most vividly remember two moments with regard to music through this lens:
One was being at the Puyallup Fair, seeing a kid in an Alice in Chains shirt. On the front: Christ on the cross. On the back, in giant red letters: BLEED THE FREAK. I didn’t yet know that was one of their song titles. I didn’t know anything about them at all, only that they weren’t for me . No thank you, you blasphemers.
The second was from a church retreat. A visiting speaker was telling us about the depravity of the world, the secular world’s lack of morals. Etcetera. He told a story about Prince playing a concert. (This was before he changed his name to a symbol, before he started writing “Slave” on his cheek in 1992, the same year as Broken and its fifth track, “Happiness in Slavery.” Artists in the ’90s really believed bad record deals to be akin to slavery.) He was playing one of his famed guitar solos, and stroking the guitar like he was masturbating. Playing, no doubt shredding, stroking up and down . . . until a white substance shot out of the end of his guitar, all over the audience. Now? Now that story sounds kinda rad, mostly hilarious. At the time? Super gross, no thank you.
“Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”
“Anticipation is the purest form of pleasure.”
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. “
I remember going to Wherehouse Music with my dad pretty regularly growing up. I remember when CDs went from niche to dominant new media—walking in and seeing half of the store suddenly devoted to CDs. (The half with cassettes stayed the same; all the vinyl was gone, just like that.) I don’t remember the first album I bought, whether as record or cassette, but I do remember the first CD I bought on my own, with my own money. First two CDs, actually: Richard Marx’s third consecutive platinum album, Rush Street , and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games soundtrack.
Broken was released in September 1992. That places it in the same year I was buying and listening to Richard Marx and Olympic Games soundtracks.
It also means, if I got it for a birthday present, that would have made it February 1993. Which would have made it my fifteenth birthday.
I’ve been doing this thing more and more as I get older, more nostalgic. I do the math, backwards or forwards, whatever which way, only to realize that my age at the time of a memory was surprising given said memory.
As I get older, I realize another of the pleasures of music, of pop music in general, is as time capsule. Doing the math again, I realize I am now as old as my dad was when I was fifteen. I’m not sure in which direction that is most surprising. I listen to Broken now and remember where I was when I first listened to it, what it felt like to be fifteen. Fifteen seems too old to have been that scared that my parents might hear, that startled and still holding onto the concept of something being forbidden. Then again, at fifteen, I not only hadn’t yet had a girlfriend, I hadn’t even kissed a girl. I related to Reznor’s distrust in relationships as much as I did his disbelief in God, but it felt good, in the best of teen angsty ways, to sing along to both.
I’ve been listening to the album again recently. I added it to my running mix; it’s a pretty great album to run to.
It started with my wife asking me which albums stand out from when I was in eighth grade. I tried to remember where I was at that year. Who I was. I did the math, extended it to include ninth grade, being thirteen, fourteen; tried to recall what came out those years, what I remember listening to. Nevermind came immediately to mind. Obviously. Pearl Jam. I got really into Pearl Jam, and that started right around then.
I kept thinking. I remembered Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head , Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik , Rage Against the Machine.
Those all came out before Broken , though I remember being even younger when I turned my stereo all the way down to barely audible volumes, when I convinced myself Reznor’s singing was a subliminal message. I probably needed all those first, as kinds of gateways, but even still, Nine Inch Nails seemed so scary, so much more illicit.
The other day, my running playlist shuffled from “Wish” into Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rain,” the kind of equal parts jarring and perfect pairing that felt weirdly representative of smartphones and MP3s and the way we listen to music now. Mid-run, Chance rapped, “Before I believed in not believin’ in.” The lyric popped out at me like I’d been reading along and it had been highlighted; it’s been ear-worming around my brain since.
It seems too easily full circle, too cheesy and cliché, but listening to the album now and thinking back on it, Broken seemed to have had some kind of subliminal effects on me after all. At some point in 1992, I was spending my allowance on Richard Marx and Olympic Games soundtracks. The next year, I started high school. I remember going to our high school band room at lunch, watching a group of guys get together, work their way through covering Helmet’s “Unsung,” over and over. They started playing shows—first around town, then bigger shows in hour-away Seattle—the first small shows I ever went to, my first introductions to any kind of indie/underground/not-played-on-the-radio music. I started listening to more and more hardcore music, all chugging riffs and mathy time signatures and screaming and more screaming.
Coincidentally, the very week I was most listening to and thinking and writing about all this, I saw a friend post on Facebook, “What’s your favorite Trent Reznor album/soundtrack?” Answers ranged, but easily the most common reply was The Downward Spiral . And it’s probably technically his best work, but I like that Broken feels like this weird EP that Reznor needed to get him from there to here, and I like that it just happened to be perfectly timed to a weird in-between phase of my own. Maybe he’d “figured it out” by The Downward Spiral , but there’s something interesting about seeing an artist wrestle with and try and figure shit out. Even if, for whatever reason, it seems super scary.