Caught in the Machine: Nine Inch Nails - "Last" and "Help Me I Am in Hell"
For its third and fourth tracks, Broken arms itself with a bludgeoning wall of sound, followed by silent, creeping dread
The drifting ambiance that fills out the closing seconds of “Wish” is a brief respite before the Broken EP continues on with its rage-fuelled march with “Last”. Take heed and prepare yourself before pressing the “Play” button: “Last” is loud. A seemingly impossibly huge wall of guitars slams against the ears the instant the song starts, and the onslaught scarcely relents until the track finishes.
Unlike the steady, speedy pulse of “Wish”, “Last” is a lumbering leviathan. Its thick, chugging riffage and its comparatively more organic gait (funny considering “Wish” used a human drummer and “Last” doesn’t) make it the most overtly heavy metal-sounding track on the record, spiritually closer to Black Sabbath than to Skinny Puppy. Given Trent Reznor’s experiences touring with an aggressive backing band in the years prior, it’s a logical realization of that aesthetic in studio form. Given the rise of loud guitar bands indebted to doom-and-dread aspect of metal’s legacy in the years between Pretty Hate Machine and Broken, it was fortuitously canny. One especially laudable instance of the song’s metallic flavor is the brief lead guitar line that appears after the end of the first chorus. It’s a tastefully restrained part that nevertheless commands attention; in the context of “Last”’s dense roar, it comes across as the herald of the end of days.
The entire song has an apocalyptic air about it. Only three songs into Broken, “Last” is already trying to tear everything down and burn the remains. “Gave up trying to figure it out / My head got lost along the way” are the very first lines Trent Reznor sings, and his words from then on continue to drip with failure and resentment. Yet even as Reznor attempts to write off any glimmers of salvation (“Fresh blood through tired skin / New sweat to drown me in / Dress up this rotten carcass just to make it look alive”, he snidely remarks in the second verse), the choruses (“Come come come on / You gotta fix me up“) find him betraying himself in feeble, desperate calls for help. Ultimately the only relief to be found in “Last” is in debauchery and masochistic punishment, with any hope of a future sacrificed to the certainty of the present moment. “This isn’t meant to last / This for right now”, Reznor sings in the song’s later stages, the last words stressed more as a means to impress some order on a chaotic world that has let him down (and vice versa) than as a statement of fact.
Following “Last” comes another short instrumental track. In this case it is “Help Me I Am in Hell”, which falls just under the two-minute mark. While “Wish” and “Last” arm themselves with anger and volume, this track opts to unnerve with atmosphere. Its most prominent element is a clipped guitar motif slowly played in a palm-muted fashion. The effect it creates is that of an understated dread crawling insect-like into the listener’s presence (a similiar sensibility is conveyed by its unsettling music video). Like “Pinion”, there is plenty of textural ear candy percolating in the background. Listen to “Help Me I Am in Hell” a few times with headphones on to truly appreciate the details composer/instrumentalist/producer Reznor plays around with in this short span (at this point it’s worthwhile to point out that the CD case includes the helpful note “Not for use with mono devices”). Unlike “Pinion”, no final release is afforded. That task is left to the next track on Broken, the punishing (and Grammy-winning, after a fashion) “Happiness in Slavery”.