Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Ghosts I – IV’ Launched the Second Phase of Trent Reznor’s Career
By John Hill
Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails; fans have known that for nearly all of Renzor's career. "Nine Inch Nails" is a band name, but Nine Inch Nails isn't a band. This was true on the 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, and it has remained that way ever since. He's always had a vision for his music, but also for how it is presented and distributed; he doesn't need anyone getting in his way.
But on his 2008 instrumental double album, Ghosts I - IV, Trent Reznor took control of his career as he never had before, proving he could mobilize his fanbase without the help of a record label, or even anything resembling a hit single. And the album led the way to his prolific scoring career, which has allowed him even more freedom in his own projects.
But let's step back a bit: in 1988, NIN helped usher in a new kind of grime to mainstream rock music through popularizing the sounds and style of industrial; in his hands, synthesizers, samplers and programmed instruments were as powerful as guitars and drums. His skills as a songwriter were on par with Robert Smith or the Morrissey/Johnny Marr team, he just used more computers than traditional instruments. His music, combined with his intensely raw and personal lyrics made him an icon with a devoted following, and one of the most important musicians of his generation.
Although fans gravitated to his lyrics, instrumental music wasn't new to Reznor; there had been vocal-free tracks scattered through his career: Reznor scored the video game Quake, and provided some instrumental music for David Lynch's 1997 Lost Highway. Both projects offered Reznor an early canvas on which he could explore textures and soundscapes devoid of lyrics and vocals.
Ghosts I-IV was the next phase in Reznor’s interest in instrumental music; in retrospect, it also may have served as a "reel" of sorts, to send to film producers, in hopes of considering Reznor as a viable film scorer. Each of the thirty-six tracks sounded like music from a different film. At the same time, he served as a template for how he'd be able to run his career in the future, free of traditional record labels.
The instrumental collection was his first since leaving Interscope Records. The album was announced 14 days before its release simply via a message on Nine Inch Nails' website saying, "big news in 2 weeks." In this era of surprise album releases, it's worth remembering that back then, major artists, even those past their commercial prime, released albums with multi-month promotional campaigns. But Reznor showed that all he needed to get his fans' attention was a five word post.
Reznor had already experimented with bypassing the major label ecosystem. A year prior, he’d worked with poet/songwriter Saul Williams to produce and release The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, an album offered as a free download, or for $5 with better audio quality. Few actually paid for the album, a disappointment to Reznor. With Ghosts, he offered an even wider range of options: he gave away the first nine tracks as a free download. Five dollars would allow you to download the entire album. The actual CD was available for $10. A deluxe version with a Blu-Ray version of the record was $75. And then there was a limited edition $300 super deluxe edition with extras and a hand signed certificate of authenticity, and which sold out within days. He made an impact, but he also likely made a big profit: he worked with a small team (frequent collaborators, Alessandro Cortini and Atticus Ross were on the record, as was former King Crimson/Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, who'd guested on past NIN records). And without having to split the money with a record label, he got a much bigger piece of the pie, even if it was a considerably smaller pie.
Ghosts is not an easy listen. Clocking in at an hour and fifty minutes, it’s Reznor’s longest work to date, outlasting even 1999’s double album The Fragile. The album sounds very "NIN," even though we never hear Reznor's voice.
Only a few months later, Reznor would release The Slip, a more conventional album with vocals. It was followed by the "Lights In the Sky" tour, where Reznor and crew would play several of Ghosts’ album cuts. A decade later, those instrumentals have proved nearly as important to Reznor's career, in a way, as “Closer” or “Hurt." That's partially because they paved the way towards his scoring career; he now had a new avenue for expression and income.
A little after a year of Ghosts’ release, Reznor announced he would be putting Nine Inch Nails on hiatus, and he took the group on the "Waves Goodbye" tour. During the tour, Reznor was approached by director David Fincher, who asked him to compose the score to his next film, 2010's The Social Network (for which Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross eventually won an Oscar). The shadow of Ghosts looms large over The Social Network (the music felt like its own character in the film); indeed, several pieces from Ghosts appear in the film. An early scene of Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg scrawling a calculation on a window is set to “35 Ghosts IV,” cheekily renamed to “A Familiar Taste.”
Teaming up with Fincher established Reznor as a viable force in film and television scoring; he has since scored 2011's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2014's Gone Girl and documentaries including 2016's Before the Flood, 2016's Patriot's Day and 2017's The Vietnam War. The soundscapes he creates in film are just as effective of eliciting an emotion as any heavy Nine Inch Nails cut. It allowed him the freedom to leave the confines of Nine Inch Nails, which would only make the project more powerful whenever he decided to reactivate it. And free of the confines of the major label system, he can do that whenever he wants.
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