“Gave Up” is the final listed track on Broken, and in that position it’s well-placed to serve as an encapsulation of the brief EP’s themes. Though the record’s guitar-rock aggression can be empowering to listeners, Broken is really about the loss of control, and the frustration and self-reflection (How did I get to this point? Is it my fault? Do I deserve this?) that can flourish in such circumstances. Trent Reznor’s well-publicized struggles with his label at the time, TVT, are his obvious muses, yet his frustrations are never etched out in detail or specifics. Instead, Reznor opts for bruised proclamations that are succinct and memorable enough to enable them to be applied with universality.
Another theme Broken dwells upon is the relationship between man and machine. Given the prominence of both electronics and traditional instruments in Nine Inch Nails’ music, this duality has always been present to some extent in Reznor’s work, whether by implication or by overt acknowledgement. Broken skews towards the latter camp in a clever manner that takes advantage of the stylistic overall the EP heralded for the band. Broken is a fierce guitar rock record, the heaviest, hardest, most rockist music Reznor had made up to that point in his career. Yet instead of overwhelming and obliterating the electronic elements (which NIN as a live band had proved it could do, during the first Lollapalooza tour and elsewhere in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s), Reznor casts himself in a defensive stance. He wields his newfound instrumental muscle as if it is the desperate last hope available to him that can keep the mechanical monstrosities at bay. The lines “Covered in hope and Vaseline / Still cannot fix this broken machine” are especially evocative, and reinforce the idea of Broken as a heavy industry contraption with weight and rust to it instead of some sleek cutting edge studio concoction that would sound outdated a few short years later.
All through Broken, Reznor has strived for deliverance from the mechanized forces oppressing him, only to be continuously ground down and punished. On “Gave Up”, he fittingly succumbs fully. Gabbing like a goblin in the choruses, Reznor screeches, “Smashed up my everything / Smashed up all that was true / Gonna smash myself to pieces / I don’t know what else to do”. He sings as if he’s pleased to have his dreams crushed and his delusions shattered; as the previous track suggests, he has found happiness in slavery. Make no mistake, though: the lips singing those words are fixed into a cynical sneer. Throughout his career, Reznor has affirmed himself as a consistently bullish and uncompromising artist; this is after all the man who defiantly declared on his first album “I’d rather die than give you control!” and then later told fans to steal Year Zero in the face of what he considered outrageous pricing. If anything, “Gave Up” and Broken are his examinations of what it is like to be forced to be in the thrall of an outside agency (again, TVT Records), and having undergone that experience, he can only look upon it with revulsion and self-loathing (“After everything I’ve done I hate myself for what I’ve become”). If Broken is a document of Reznor being cowed, the situation would not last long. (Fittingly, a remix CD of this EP was later released under the title Fixed, and that record as well as his second full-length The Downward Spiral further aided Reznor on his journey to the top of the ‘90s’ modern rock heap.)
Never has defeat sounded as energized as on “Gave Up”. Ever since I first heard Broken, the speedy clip at which the song moved always made me compare it to the similarly brisk tempo of “Wish”, and I have long considered both songs cut from the same cloth. That comparison has until recently led me to unfairly look upon “Gave Up” as a retread upon familiar territory. What led me to reevaluate my opinion was watching an in-studio performance video of “Gave Up” from 1993. It’s a great rendition, where the song’s simmering intensity is carefully cultivated and maintained by Reznor and his assemblage of ne’er-do-wells (among them drummer Chris Vrenna reprising his phenomenal stickwork from the record, as well as a pre-stardom Marilyn Manson churning out rhythm guitar chords).
That video clip depicts Reznor and Nine Inch Nails at a pivotal juncture. To the average person in 1993, if they were aware of Nine Inch Nails at all it was as a vaguely scary entity, one with an evocative name and logo that seemed to insidiously crop up in more and more places with each passing year. Clad in funereal black, paling around with a future Antichrist Superstar, and recording in the former mansion of Sharon Tate, the notorious site of the Charles Manson Family murders (Reznor has always asserted that he didn’t know about the house’s history when he started renting the premises), Reznor could have easily made the rest of his career about shock and schlock. In short, he could’ve become what Marilyn Manson did, a cultural boogeyman/scapegoat whose headline-grabbing persona overshadowed his recording career. While the trappings mentioned above are all evident in the “Gave Up” clip, what is also evident is the diligence and craftsmanship of Reznor and his crew, as the performers’ furrowed dedication and the digital tracks carefully assembled on an array of computer screens attest. To this day, Reznor’s music continues to grapple with anger and transgression, and he will still trash his gear on stage if his mood sours. However, craft has always come first, and that is why as good as Broken is, it is really only an early stage of a brilliant creative streak for the musician.