This is the third in a trilogy of EPs from Nine Inch Nails that started with 2016’s forgettable Not the Actual Events and continued with 2017’s also forgettable Add Violence. As global events have progressed on their downward spiral, 2018’s Bad Witch is inevitably the bleakest of the lot. But it’s also the best.
Marketed this time as a full album rather than an EP, despite being only 6 tracks and 30 minutes in length, Trent Reznor seems to be signalling that this one is operating at a higher level of ambition (although perhaps he was just frustrated with the lack of attention garnered the previous EPs). Just as 2007’s Year Zero obliquely criticised the Dubya administration with its sci-fi dystopian narrative, Bad Witch evokes the despair of liberals in the age of Trump without ever calling the president out by name (although the title of the album refers to the “witch hunts” that Trump doesn’t care to shut up about, and can also be shortened to one particular “B” word that completes the sentence “Son of a ____”).
The speed and scuzzy rage of the opening “Shit Mirror” sets the black tone, an ugly yet familiar mix of electro- and industrial-rock that has been Nine Inch Nail’s calling for decades now. And the lyrics are equally bleak: Reznor looks at himself in the mirror and sees not just a new face that he doesn’t recognise, but a new world behind it; his own turmoil and the world’s are combined. He sees, and repeatedly chants at the end of the song to rub our faces in it: “New world/New times/Mutation/Feels all right”. That last line jars – does he really feel all right, like R.E.M. at the end of the world and they know it? The pounding drums and screeching that form the backdrop to those words tell us the answer, which is: definitely not.
Things only descend further into darkness from there. “Ahead of Ourselves” continues the saga of Trent Reznor’s bitter agnosticism that has compelled him throughout his career, with a tossed off couplet where the irony hides bitter pain: “Better be proud of his work/That is if He existed (not so sure anymore)”. As he concluded in The Downward Spiral, if God is dead then each and every one of us is nothing but a “Knuckle dragging animal… With out snouts in the dirt”. That line darkens “Ahead of Ourselves” to the point of self-parody, a one-dimensional jibe at humanity that ignores all the amazing things, like music, that we’ve achieved. But then Reznor has always been attracted to melodramatic overstatement, and as usual his music is so compelling and weird that he almost gets away with it: “Ahead of Ourselves” is a busy and cacophonous production, meriting repeated listens thanks to its layers of polyrhythmic percussion and bursts of metallic rage. It sounds dense and frightening; listening to it whilst reading the news really will make you feel what Reznor is getting at.
The rest of the album plays out variations on the same theme: we’re all fucked. “Play the Goddamned Part” is a 5-minute instrumental that incorporates a saxophone into its electro-industrial mix, apparently inspired by the production on David Bowie’s Blackstar. Reznor uses the saxophone in a similar way to Bowie, using it not as a conduit for soul-searching ecstasy like John Coltrane or Kamasi Washington, but as a squawking symbol of chaos that can’t help but remind one of death. And then Reznor evokes Bowie further in “God Break Down the Door” and “Over and Out”, in which, as many critics have noticed, his vocals are distinctly crooned and made to sound somewhat like that late master. It’s a poignant if slightly unnerving effect. I think it’s designed to make us ponder whether we’ve lost the best that humanity has to offer.
All of it leads to the title of the second instrumental, “I’m Not from This World”, which in the context of everything else on the album sounds more like wishful thinking than a statement of fact. Reznor despises the state of humankind with such visceral energy on Bad Witch that it’s easy to become absorbed in his vision, and if we’re not careful we might believe he has something profound to say. But the rallying cries of Parquet Courts’ and Superchunk’s latest albums seem to me more powerful statements about our times, because they attempt to agitate people towards political action whereas Nine Inch Nails simply wallow in despair.
There’s some fighting spirit in the hyperactive beats of Bad Witch. But they’re not enough to stave off a general misanthropy that is off-putting and severely limits the album’s overall impact. Reznor’s philosophical visions of humanity remain simplistic, even adolescent; however the music displays a maturity that is almost uplifting.