Every Nine Inch Nails song is more than just a heavy tune.
Band mastermind Trent Reznor always looks at the big picture, and every album is filled with intricacies and song elements you won’t catch on first listen.
When those Easter Eggs do come out, it’s hard to miss them.
Though these might not draw your attention the first time around, these songs have some subtle jokes and puns sprinkled into the background.
Whether it’s talking about another band or taking someone else’s melody, these pieces were a chance for Reznor to have fun behind the scenes.
Once you hear them in context, each of these sounds takes on a different meaning. It could be in there to mess with people, but it could also have some deeper connection to every song on the record.
Nine Inch Nails songs might sound chaotic in some spots, but nothing is put into the final mix by accident.
The ‘90s rock scene was never happy-go-lucky.
There were always dust ups here and there, and Reznor was out for blood on “Starfuckers, Inc.” Although the song is about the superficial side of the music industry, Reznor wrote this with a specific target. After wrapping up a rocky relationship with Courtney Love, Reznor wrote lines directly referencing her as “a little bitch on the cover of a magazine.”
The melody of the breakdown even features a callback to the ‘70s AM radio hit “You’re So Vain,” as Reznor sings the lines through his gnashed teeth. The music video left nothing to the imagination either, depicting Love in a dunk tank before getting thrown into the drink in her white dress.
Aside from the public thrashing, Love made a worthy retort back at Reznor: “Don’t call your band Nine Inch Nails if you only have a three inch one.”
No one questions who calls the shots in Nine Inch Nails.
While Reznor had been the brains behind the project during The Downward Spiral, arguably the best parts of the record came from a prog rock legend. During the initial sessions, King Crimson’s Adrian Belew was brought in to add guitar textures to the album.
Although Spiral might not be a “guitar” record, Belew mentioned getting different feedback, with Reznor asking him to use noise rather than individual notes.
While Belew’s riffs appear on songs like “Mr. Self Destruct,” he mentioned Reznor’s grasp on the medium saying “Trent has an astounding command of technology, old and new; he’s such an intriguing person to work with.”
Reznor knew exactly how to use a guitar god like Belew in the context of Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor’s ‘Piggy’ Drum Performance
Nothing in rock and roll is perfect.
Even though Reznor had a good idea of what “Piggy” should sound like, his incompetence as a drummer brought everything together. When Reznor laid down the demo, he was playing drums loosely, which made the entire track sound slightly out of time. Once he laid everything down in the studio, nothing compared to the original track’s disheveled energy.
So what Nine Inch Nails fans wound up listening to is Reznor’s accidentally great playing. Regardless of how the take was recorded, “Piggy” might be one of the harshest sections of the entire record. Sure, it might not be in time, but that’s what makes it sound so disturbing.
The Downward Spiral was always meant to tell a story.
Even though fans picked it up for songs like “Closer,” Reznor was following the character Mr. Self Destruct until the last note rang out on the album. Since fans got a peek into his mind, it made sense to have certain sections come up again.
While “Closer” ruled MTV in 1996, the piano lick that closes out the song appears again on other tracks. It reappears as the main guitar lick on “Heresy” and is featured on the title track amid a sea of muffled screaming. Given the story of the album, the lick is Reznor checking in on this character’s state of mind until the end where he finally snaps.
Reznor had always admitted his love for Pink Floyd, and this is the kind of sonic storytelling that is ripped out of The Wall.
There’s more to Trent Reznor than just industrial rock.
Reznor always wore his eclectic tastes on his sleeve, and he came into Pretty Hate Machine listening to New Wave. When he recorded the ballad “Something I Can Never Have,” Reznor mentioned using pieces of unused songs from This Mortal Coil.
While This Mortal Coil fell closer to dream pop, the textures added to the insanity behind this track. This song might front as a love song, but it’s all about Reznor chasing after someone that he doesn’t even know is real.
Compared to every song on Pretty Hate Machine, this is the closest thing to a ballad that Nine Inch Nails fans were going to get.
Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts releases are a class of weird all their own.
Although Reznor may have made these tracks, they are part of Creative Commons and are free to use and remix. Reznor intended for fans to do what they wanted with the tracks, and a bedazzled cowboy did just that. In 2019, an excerpt from the first Ghost collection was used on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
When you listen to the song in context, it sounds surreal hearing Reznor’s tender piano hits come in before Lil Nas X makes his entrance. While Reznor was tight-lipped about the song, he said that Lil Nas X’s take on his song was “undeniably hooky.”
“Big Man With a Gun” is the most hedonistic song on The Downward Spiral.
While Reznor had said the song was meant to satirize gangsta rap lyrics, the storyline shows Mr. Self Destruct resorting to sexual violence. Even if you ignore the lyrics, there’s still some smut going on in the background. Hidden beneath the layers of distortion is a clip from an adult film that Reznor had with him at the time.
In between the screams of “SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT,” you can hear the sounds of a female porn star moaning on the final tape. In the context of the album, this is not meant to be arousing.
Although the song is hard to stomach at once, he did have some humor in the credits. For the sampled audio, Reznor attributed the performance to Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee.
Via Spin Magazine
Listening to The Downward Spiral feels like being in a horror movie.
To this end, Reznor did have something extra for the horror fans in the audience. Once the record winds down on “Reptile,” the sounds of machinery are fused with screams taken from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While this was far from the first sample on the album, it’s the most effective way to show how far the protagonist has come.
Spiral opened up with the sound of a man being beaten, but this song is where Mr. Self Destruct goes full Leatherface.
In the world of industrial rock, Trent Reznor was never a trend chaser.
Although Reznor had his own lane from the jump on Pretty Hate Machine, he did wear some influences on his sleeve on “Down In It.” Looking back on the song, Reznor mentioned wanting it to sound like Skinny Puppy saying,
“It was a total rip-off of “Dig It” by Skinny Puppy. I’ll admit that now. I hate to say what I’m talking about, but I’ll do it now, since it’s so old I just like to think about it now.”
While Reznor isn’t shy about admitting it these days, he had mentioned the song coming from a dark place saying “I was kind of coming of age, realizing that, you know, things might not work out sort of feeling. That’s kind of the bridge of the song.”
Trent Reznor has a range of different influences in Nine Inch Nails.
Classic rock is not usually one of them. When cutting the sessions for “Hesitation Marks,” Reznor called in Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac to play on “Copy of A.” Reznor had worked with Buckingham during a performance at the Grammys and wanted him to contribute his signature guitar licks to the album.
Despite the name, this is far from easy listening, as Buckingham plays searing guitar that would leave some metal fans shell-shocked. While this worked for Nine Inch Nails, there’s a slim chance that any of The Mac’s repertoire has licks like this.