“This is the first day / Of my last days." Nine Inch Nails' 1992 EP begins by gradually building up tension, then releasing it in caustic (yet controlled) outbursts that earned the act a Grammy Award.
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.
Knowing Reznor, the stilted and artificial quality of the guitar pattern is deliberate. “Pinion" is a mood-setter, and what it is setting up is squirming, uncomfortable tension. “Pinion" also plays a cruelly clever volume trick -- it starts out stupidly quiet and increases in loudness both gradually and in great fits, which surely vexes any listeners trying to settle on a comfortable setting on the volume knob throughout its duration. In the track’s final seconds, the guitars attain peak loudness, with all other previously present sounds silenced by the magnitude of their presence. Though nothing harmonically has changed, the dynamic contrast is startling; if Broken hadn’t garner your attention in the preceding minute, it has now.
As suddenly as the flick of a switch, “Pinion" cuts out and the volume shrinks back down, and the former’s guitar motif is seamlessly replaced with a stop-start mechanical hum and drum pattern with a noticeably high BPM number. It’s time for “Wish", one of the EP’s singles as well as one of its standouts. Even divorced from “Pinion", “Wish" takes pent-up tension and vents it in searing micro-outbusts with machine-like precision; it’s fitting that its music video features Reznor and his backing band being swarmed by an unruly mob of humanity barely contained by metal bars. Reznor could have made “Wish" into an all-out assault (certainly, its most aggressive moments are so forceful they are almost physically absorbed), but instead he used his skills as an arranger to thread interesting details and clever touches throughout. The music drops out for a beat at key moments when Reznor wants to emphasize something (such as a transition or a particular obscenity), instruments come and go when needed for texture (note Martin Atkins’ live drums in the second verse), and the song shifts into half-time for part of its choruses to lend the sections’ crushing heaviness extra wallop.
“This is the first day / Of my last days." Trent Reznor’s very first words on Broken are immediately answered by a fit of loud, gurgling guitars. If Nine Inch Nails fans back in 1992 had not had a chance to see the act live yet, they were in for a rude surprise if they were expecting a retread of Pretty Hate Machine’s synth-dominated approach. The label “alternative metal" was only beginning to be thrown around back then, but the thrashing power chord riffs and pummeling drums of “Wish" placed it comfortably under that heading. Reznor utters only his first couplet with any sense of restraint; from then on, he screams his self-flagellating lyrics with all the bile he can muster. Surely, “Wish" is one of the virulent expressions of guilt and self-loathing to ever be committed to tape. “I put my faith in God / And my trust in you / Now there’s nothing more fucked up I can do", “I’m the one without a soul / I’m the one with this big fucking hole", “You know me, I hate everyone" -- If you couldn’t tell, Trent is tad upset at letting someone down. Looking at the lyrics to “Wish" (or most any Nine Inch Nails song, it must be said), it might be tempting to view Reznor’s words as overwrought adolescent angst. Yet placed within the context of the music, they take on an undeniable power; nothing else could hold its own amongst the onslaught he has constructed. The song concludes with his screaming being overwhelmed by additional layers of raging guitars, which then abruptly cut out; all that remains in their wake is static-y ambience for the track’s final seconds.
"Wish" is ugly, brutal, confessional, and confrontational -- and it’s brilliant at it. In fact, the song earned Reznor his first Grammy Award in 1993, for Best Metal Performance. Though Reznor has been dismissive about the accolade -- judging by recent remarks, he considers the choice of category he was honored in idiotic -- it’s actually well-earned. “Wish" inaugurated the recorded debut of Nine Inch Nails as a full-on, heavy-and-hard rock outfit with unnerving intensity and potency. After hearing “Wish" a generation of hard rockers (fans and musicians alike) still coming to grips with grunge’s ascendancy immediately saw the light and knew that the ante has just been raised.