Album Review: Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch

I’m probably past the point of providing an unbiased review of a Nine Inch Nails release. Over the years, I’ve immersed myself in Trent Reznor’s music to such a degree that I feel I can address his work in totality, with a scope encompassing the ongoing life cycle of Nine Inch Nails, and, to a degree, industrial music in general.  Given that, I regret to report that Bad Witch is kind of a lackluster release, and presents a less-than-fulfilling conclusion to the trilogy of EPs that began with Not The Actual Events and continued with Add Violence.

Bad Witch strikes me as both an experimental effort and a return to old tools in its use of saxophone (which we last saw used, to great  effect, on Hesitation Marks) and in its longer, texture-heavy instrumental pieces (which, while common in the greater NIN discography, have been absent since The Slip).  “Play The Goddamned Part”, the former of the two instrumentals, is denser and more hostile than most of Ghosts I-IV, but its alienating qualities stem less from its portraiture of the unknown and unfamiliar, and more from artistic choices both unconvincing and jarring—I wasn’t able to  immerse in the gloom and tension of “Play The Goddamned Part”, and spent more time grappling with questions like “What’s being said with these saxophone squeals and offbeat clattering samples? Why were these choices made?” As a curiosity, a musical display  piece to ponder over, it succeeds, but it doesn’t do nearly as much for me emotionally or synestheticly as “I’m Not From This World”, which lurks and slithers deliciously through a benighted bayou of its own creation.

Of the tracks featuring Reznor’s voice, “God Beak Down The Door” feels the strongest; both Reznor’s voice and the saxophone provide a smooth, moody compliment to the bitter and relentless synth line. The first few minutes of “Over And Out” are a little canned and chirpy, and seemed like a less interesting version of “Satellite” off Hesitation Marks, but Reznor’s vocal scoop and warbley vibrato on this track lends his voice an aged, Bowie-esque crooning quality that soaks into the track and plays hauntingly off of his repeated refrain: “time is running out”. “Shit Mirror” is grooveable, and feels like a solid deep cut, but doesn’t innovate or stomp quite hard enough to be a great first track (especially compared to “Branches/Bones” or “Less Than”), and it flows so smoothly into “Ahead of Ourselves” that I thought they were a single long song for the first two or three listens, which wasn’t exactly welcome. “Ahead of Ourselves” is a few variations on a single fuzzy, tinny groove; I wasn’t compelled by what the rhythm section was doing, and the song neither trades dynamic range for texture and build like the instrumental pieces, nor sells Reznor’s breathless, distorted delivery.

There are cool moments on Bad Witch, but it doesn’t feel like a cohesive piece, and its songs generally don’t hold enough weight to buck cohesion and stand on their own. These faults read even worse when you consider Bad Witch in context, as the finale to Not The Actual Events and Add Violence. Together, those two EPs told a story of a crumbling sense of security and growing paranoia in a world hell-bent on self-destructive habits, and the corresponding collapse of resolve and well-being as the political becomes personal. On Bad Witch, “Shit Mirror”’s refrain “new world, new time, mutation feels alright” seems to promise a new way forward, but the dark urgency of its companion pieces doesn’t manifest, and Bad Witch itself fails to achieve sufficient mutation to feel vital.