Critic’s Notebook: Trent Reznor Serves Up Sublime Soundscapes in Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Bad Witch’

The new album is a concise, eccentric winner that finds Reznor gently pushing boundaries.

Trent Reznor and his band of gloomy machine funkateers Nine Inch Nails return Friday with Bad Witch — their promised third album in a trilogy of releases in as many years — which finds Reznor, now 53, confronting his relevance and the decay of both himself and the world.

This is the third project Reznor made his soundtrack partner, stoic-faced wizard Atticus Ross, under the NIN mantle. It’s an understated winner that feels like the freshest thing NIN has done in a while — and that’s because Reznor holds it within your set of expectations but pushes the sound far enough away from those expectations, and outside the pop-friendly realm, to bring you to a point of sublime discomfort.

You don’t need to listen to the first two installations in the trilogy to appreciate this album, but what you should know is that each piece of music was supposed to address the maestro’s question, “Where is my place in the world today?” On Bad Witch, he seems fine with not having an answer. Instead, he’s pleasantly restless and not focused on sounding like a Nine Inch Nails record.

But don’t worry, diehards: This is most definitely a NIN record. Reznor and Ross’ signature sound-design fingerprints are all over the place. It’s the same steely, hopeful-cum-hopeless, fuzzy, synth-guitar galaxy we’ve come to expect. Just a different planet.

It’d be easy to connect this — or any recent or current piece of dark or existential-themed pop culture — to the Trumpian helltimes, but Bad Witch feels much more personal than political, and the legacy of David Bowie looms heavily. You could argue that this unnamed NIN trilogy is Reznor’s version of the Berlin Trilogy, with Ross the Brian Eno to his Bowie. Reznor is the raw emotion conjurer and Ross his observer and editor (though we can assume the dynamic was more complex than that). The comparison feels pretty fair, though Reznor isn’t nearly the chameleon that Bowie was; his transformations are more understated.

Bad Witch is light on radio-friendly material. There is no “Closer” here, or much resembling a single outside the opener, and big anthems (like on some of their other records, post-Downward Spiral) are not within this album’s purview. But it’s an introspective, weird headphones record that brings you back for seconds.

Part of that odd intimacy comes from the fact that Reznor dusted off his saxophone — an instrument he hadn’t meddled with in decades — for these recording sessions. It’s a gambit that pays off, an experiment that seems intuitive after the fact but silly on paper. The sax plays many roles throughout the brief runtime of Bad Witch, and it’s almost a pity he didn’t have the idea earlier in his career; the inclusion of the instrument feels like some sort of twisted riff on Arthur Russell or James Holden, bending the brass until it takes on an abstracted context.

The record, short and concise, jumps straight to the point with “Shit Mirror,” a swingin’ two-stepper that follows a pattern of NIN opening the last two albums with their most direct, single-y songs. It’s an off-kilter garage stomper that introduces the sax and Todd Rundgren-esque guitar filters.

The strangeness is ratcheted up in “Ahead of Ourselves,” which essentially finds Reznor throwing drum & bass, metal and pop into his rusty blender. The resultant mutant bassline carries the tune into truly unexpected territories.

Things take a nice and needed detour into instrumental territory for “Play the Goddamn Part,” where Reznor wisely practices restraint and lets the sax fully come to the fore. The track concludes with a quizzical piano loop that could have been ripped from the Gone Girl soundtrack.

“God Break Down the Door” is more drum & bass skitter-funk, and ”I’m Not From This World” is another essentially instrumental number that just barrels along, building tension with no release. That is, until the album’s closer, “Over and Out,” the standout denouement that feels like some progeny of Bowie and Dave Harrington. It starts out all drum machines and propulsive beat, which dip in and out as Reznor croons, “Time is running ooouuut.” Answers here are few.

Bad Witch ends with this long, sustained angelic tone that decays for a couple of minutes over an arpeggiated synth before gently disappearing. That note, which hangs for what seems like forever, is not the worst one to end on.

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