For many artists, a debut album can offer the purest statement of purpose, but for the bands that popularized industrial music, first albums typically served as prologue to a story that wouldn’t develop until later. Although Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut, bore more of a resemblance to what the band became than, say, Ministry’s cringe-worthy 1983 new-wave debut, it still differs markedly from The Slip, two decades later.
Newly remastered with a bonus track (a cover of Queen’s “Get Down Make Love,” a B-side and former staple of NIN’s live sets), Pretty Hate Machine sounds great, but remains the work of an artist just discovering his voice. Where subsequent albums showed more focus, Pretty Hate Machine bounces from the industrial rock of frontman Trent Reznor’s heroes in Ministry (“Head Like A Hole”) to dance-floor jams (“Sin,” “Ringfinger”) to quasi-rap (“Down In It”) to an electro-funk misfire (“The Only Time”). The two songs that most recognizably sound like Nine Inch Nails—“Head Like A Hole” and “Terrible Lie”—are unsurprisingly the ones that remained part of the band’s live sets until Reznor retired NIN as a touring entity in 2009.
The remastering greatly improves the dynamics, letting the lows hit harder and clarifying the many sonic elements Reznor works into the songs. But remastering can’t help some of the synthesizers and samples age better (particularly in “That’s What I Get”), or make Reznor’s mopey lyrics less silly. (“Grey would be the color if I had a heart,” “Now I’m slipping on the tears you made me cry,” etc.)
Reznor began to hit his stride on the 1992 EP Broken, and he fully reached it with 1994’s The Downward Spiral, which makes Pretty Hate Machine more of an interesting prequel than a pillar of NIN’s catalogue. Sure, Reznor needed to start somewhere, and Pretty Hate Machine has many charms, but 20 years later, it doesn’t warrant repeat listens like its successors.