Even working within the constraints of the EP format’s short runtime, Trent Reznor takes pains to open Broken with a sense of occasion. The first track is “Pinion”, a scant one minute and three seconds of an ascending guitar pattern gradually increasing in volume. When described that way, it doesn’t sound very exciting. That’s because “Pinion” is meant to be listened to, preferably with headphones on in order to appreciate the ambient noises that are also percolating in the background, slowly building up body and dread. The guitars are heavily processed and most likely sampled—note the disjointed quality of the chords, which is audible evidence of digital cut-and-pasting.
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Trent Reznor: industrial auteur, Generation X icon, Grammy Award winner, lavishly-praised film composer, and, as of recent months, a first-year eligible entry on this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ballot. When Reznor was toiling late nights to piece together the first Nine Inch Nails album Pretty Hate Machine (1989), did he ever conceive that the angst-laden electronic/rock hybrid he was fashioning would immortalize him so? Whether he had or not, any dissection of a career that now spans a quarter of a century will surely confirm that the man has thoroughly earned it.
Through the popular music lens that typically views artists’ output in terms of albums and singles, Nine Inch Nails’ story starts with Pretty Hate Machine and them jumps five years later to The Downward Spiral (1994), Reznor’s ambitious magnum opus. Or to put it another way, the story moves from “Head Like a Hole” to “Closer” and “Hurt”, with little elaboration between. However, such a bare-bone narrative of the NIN story leaves out an essential chapter, one that’s easy for the uninformed skip over in the CD racks due to its slight six-item tracklist and therefore perceived inferior content-to-price value quotient.
As I said last time in this series, American Idiot essentially ended with “Homecoming”, as Jesus of Suburbia’s journey came full circle and found its resolution. He didn’t become the rebellious punk antihero/savior he set out to be, but he was able to find solace in himself and the world in which he lives, accepting that life is meant to be screwed up and scary, yet ultimately full of possibilities too. However, it’s precisely those unfulfilled prospects and vague uncertainties that shape who we are and perpetually haunt us, nagging at the backs of our minds for answers that will never come.
The narrative of American Idiot began in a grandiose fashion, with the multilayered “Jesus of Suburbia” working as a suite of mini-songs that introduced listeners to the themes, sentiments, and, of course, central character of this stunning punk rock opera. It makes perfect sense, then, for Green Day to conclude this story (well, more or less) with another lengthy epic, and that’s precisely what the record’s twelfth track, “Homecoming”, is. Having faced and conquered an existential crisis whilst traversing the City of the Damned, as well as suffered the rejection of both his disciples and his first love (Whatshername), Jesus is ready to return home, face reality, and start anew.
As I’ve already discussed thus far in this series, Green Day’s 2004 masterpiece American Idiot is incredibly multifaceted. Part punk rock concept album (in the vein of the Who’s Quadrophenia) and part social commentary on post-9/11 America, the album offers both an endearing yet tragic coming-of-age tale and a formal expression of the fear and sadness felt within the country at the turn of the century. While the full-length has already featured plenty of wonderful examples of these sentiments, its eleventh track, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, is easily the most poignant, striking, and universal one up until now. A heartbreaking eulogy to the losses of its central character, vocalist, and even the nation in which it takes place, the song is devastatingly somber, hypnotic, and beautiful. In fact, in terms of pure songwriting, it make be the best composition the trio has ever written.