Nine Inch Nails and the Urgency of Repentance

Chris Wheeler

For decades now, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has been chronicling the total depravity and brokenness of humankind through his unique lens of unsettling industrial rock. Light is hard to find in Reznor’s sonic landscapes, but he’s always searching for it and channeling the perceived futility of that search into his music. His most recent set of EPs—Not the Actual Events (2016), Add Violence (2017), and Bad Witch (2018)—represents one of the most cohesive examples of this search in his discography.

In these installments, Reznor joins forces with his longtime partner of film and soundtrack fame, Atticus Ross, who lends his synth expertise to Reznor’s driving distortion and feedback. According to their interview with Zane Lowe, the EP trifecta was originally conceived as a way “to find truth in us figuring out who we are now and how we fit into the world.” The EPs each reflect a different aspect of that quest.

Not the Actual Events leans into the confessional and depressive nature of NIN’s style, providing an inward glimpse of the chaos and self-sabotage within Reznor’s own soul. In press releases he described the first EP in the series as “unfriendly” and “fairly impenetrable,” but fans will recognize a retrospective in sound and content. Reznor demonstrates his ability to scream into the darkness, whether in resignation (“Branches/Bones”), loneliness (“Dear World”), or denial (“The Idea of You”), even as he admits in “Dear World” that his understanding of the world is intrinsically connected to his view of himself:

I can hardly recognize you anymore
Because I can't recognize who I have been
And yet I remain certain
There is an answer in you

The pinnacle of Not the Actual Events is the unstoppable advance of “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).” Over swarming guitars and crushing rhythms, Reznor sings the first statement of clarity in an otherwise turbulent album: “Break through the surface and breathe.” From the clarity of that repeated statement rises the anthemic “I am forgiven / I am free / I am a field on fire.” Here, Reznor relates redemption to destruction—bringing to mind Paul’s words in Romans 6: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”

Add Violence, from 2017, carries the quest outward, focusing on methods of searching that still, ultimately, fail to provide answers. In “Less Than,” violence can’t fix the wrong inside. In “The Lovers,” the seductive nature of addiction is proven to be “a lie, a mirror reflecting in a mirror of a lie.” Reznor’s conclusions on this earth come to a head in “The Background World,” a song clocking in at almost 12 minutes, seven minutes of which are a repeated clip consistently degrading into total static—a copy of a copy of a copy. Reznor’s nihilism is showing:

There is no moving past
There is no better place
There is no future point in time
We will not get away

The world is bleeding out
It folds itself in two
Behind the background world
It’s always bleeding through

Bad Witch picks up where Add Violence leaves off with back-to-back ironic takes on change as a solution: the scathing banger “Sh!t Mirror,” (“New world / new times / mutation / feels all right”) and the anxious, distortion-driven “Ahead of Ourselves.” (“Why try change when you know you can’t?”) The latter gives a clear indication of Reznor’s view on God:

Created us in his image
Better be proud of his work
That is if he existed (not so sure anymore)

Even with this expression of disbelief, Reznor is quick to say that humanity isn’t all that enlightened, and in fact deserves the world it’s made.

Light is hard to find in Reznor’s sonic landscapes, but he’s always searching for it.

At this point in the EP series, listeners have had every potential support knocked out from under them—we are broken inside and the world is broken outside. Change, meanwhile, doesn’t provide something better, only more of the same. It is here that the central song of Bad Witch approaches the closest thing to an answer that Reznor could provide. Over a searing hellscape of synths, static, and saxophones, he intones, with a vocal quality eerily similar to his idol David Bowie:

God break down the door
You won’t find the answers here
Not the ones you came looking for

NIN has made a decades-spanning career out of menacing, nihilistic anthems to a world and a people devoid of hope and meaning. Yet here, Reznor admits that maybe we’re looking for the wrong answers, even suggesting that salvation may just lie in divine intervention.

The final word of Bad Witch is one of urgency: “Time is running out / I don’t know what I’m waiting for.” Perhaps Reznor can’t escape himself or his world, but the urgency of his message and his inability to save himself are poignant reminders of our overwhelming need for a Savior. We all (Reznor included) need to hear the words of 2 Peter 3:9-13: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?”

In the midst of all the questions in this EP set, Reznor fails to ask this last one. Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t, and it also provides a sure answer:

“You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

The day of God’s wrath, then, is also the day when he makes all things new, a day where the repentant—those who honestly say “I am forgiven / I am free / I am a field on fire”—will break through the surface and breathe the air of an unbroken world.

Topics: Music