It feels weird to say it, but Trent Reznor has aged pretty well. In the mid-'90s, it seemed unlikely that the author of songs like "Mr. Self Destruct" would make it to the next millennium before drowning in a pile of white drugs or going the Kurt Cobain route in one grisly way or another. Hell, Cobain at least had a detectable sense of humor, whereas Reznor seemed to be a human being inspired by little other than pure nihilism and hatred. So it has been a surprise to watch him become a 53-year-old family man and tuxedo-wearing Oscar winner who collaborates with people like Ken Burns for PBS documentaries.
Reznor's band, Nine Inch Nails, is still kicking, though. It hasn't all been moody scores for Ben Affleck movies - nope, between jobs, Reznor and Atticus Ross, his musical partner of the last several years, have been plugging away, putting out NIN EP's with regularity. Their latest effort, "Bad Witch," is technically an LP, as it's over a half hour, but it's right on the line, and it has only six songs, so it's basically an EP, no matter what Reznor says. In any case, it's probably the best one of the band's recent trilogy, as it finds Reznor trying some new sounds and vocal approaches on for size while also hearkening back to the more aggressive tones of the "Broken" EP from 1992.
The main issue with 2016's "Not the Actual Events" and 2017's "Add Violence," the band's prior two EP's, is that they often found Reznor venturing into spoken-word vocals and putzing around with making things sound disjointed and scratchy more than he should have. The thing that always made NIN so compelling is the marriage of Reznor's sonic adventurism with his solid ability to craft a good hook.
The last couple of years, Reznor has drifted away from whatever melodicism he possessed, perhaps as a result of being so invested in soundtracking and putting mood above pop songcraft. In any case, "Bad Witch" somehow finds a middle ground, where noise and fractured song forms meet up with singable melodies. This isn't "Closer" or "We're in This Together" territory, but it's stuff that wouldn't have stuck out too much if it had been on "The Downward Spiral" after "Ruiner."
"Sh*t Mirror" overcomes its painfully dumb title by being a solid three-minute chunk of pistons-pumping NIN angst. Much of the song sounds submerged, but the chorus comes up for air a little. Things really get interesting when Reznor dumps some honking saxophones into the second verse. It's not an instrument that is heard much on NIN albums, but it's kinda the star of "Bad Witch," as it turns out.
Single "God Break Down the Door" is drenched in Reznor's sax playing, in fact, which is reminiscent of the stuff that was all over David Bowie's "Blackstar" album. In fact, Reznor's vocals on this track - as well as the skittering, careening beat - seem to almost be a direct tribute to Bowie's final work. Given that Reznor and Bowie had been friends and tourmates, it could be exactly that.
There's still a bit too much sonic sculpture on "Bad Witch" - there are two long instrumentals, and it's only a six-track EP - but a song like "Ahead of Ourselves," with its off-kilter, aggro chorus, makes up for it. Overall, it's interesting, surprising, odd, and a bit off-putting, and that's about all one should want from a Nine Inch Nails EP. Er, album.
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Album: "Bad Witch"
Produced by: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Personnel: Trent Reznor (vocals, etc.), Atticus Ross (etc.)