Nine Inch Nails’ Most Devastating Dirges

Trent Reznor has been soundtracking the end of the world for decades now, and somehow—no matter what is dominating the news cycle—it always feels appropriate. Coming out of the bowels of Cleveland, Ohio, as a fan of Skinny Puppy, Gary Numan, and Nitzer Ebb, Reznor brought his blackened synth-pop to the masses with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine. On that album, between the seething industrial dance anthems “Head Like a Hole” and “Sin,” he bared his soul for “Something I Can Never Have,” a minimal piano elegy that dares to dangle its feet over a great black hole of hopelessness. Each succeeding NIN album would include at least one such devastating dirge: The Downward Spiral’s “Hurt,” The Fragile’s “The Great Below,” With Teeth’s “Right Where It Belongs.” Even the highly underrated Still, a 2002 set of instrumentals and stripped-down songs, was completely dedicated to the concept.

Now a prestigious Oscar-winning composer, Reznor has long mastered the art of eliciting emotion from the subtlest of sounds and drawing out our deepest-seated anxieties from the space between those sounds. Just see his haunting scores for films like The Social Network and Gone Girl with Atticus Ross, the darkly ambient Ghosts series, and more recent doom-stricken dirges like Add Violence’s “This Isn’t the Place.” As any NIN fan understands, there’s something sinisterly seductive about allowing yourself to slip into your own shadow, to slide further down the spiral, to soak in the dreariest of drones. But what’s kept the band evolving—and what makes you keep listening—is the profound realization that darkness can’t exist without light. To that, Reznor’s most powerful compositions manage to radiate and resonate with the slightest sense of solace (see: “Leaving Hope”).