The latest Nine Inch Nails album closes with two minutes of sonic ether that fades into a distance as hazy and difficult to make out as the boundary between water and ocean during a heavy fog. Musically, not much seems to be taking place, and the sustained denouement only teases at what NIN mastermind Trent Reznor could do if he took a leap in the experimental ambient direction of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Prefuse 73, or Aphex Twin. Listen attentively, though, and you realize that Reznor actually layered multiple sounds over top of one another. “Shit Mirror,” Bad Witch’s opening track, appears to cut off abruptly after two choruses, but if you crank the volume up you can discern something that sounds like a single drip of water.
Such attention to detail is hardly surprising, as Reznor’s never been one to half-ass things. The first three Nine Inch Nails full-lengths were products of such obsessive perfectionism that it became routine for Reznor to get sucked into working on them for years on end. And even when he worked at a hasty (for him) pace on 2008’s The Slip, the results sounded no less precise than before. This time, though, the subtleties are so buried they may as well be Easter eggs. In a listening climate where, as Reznor himself has lamented on numerous occasions, people are less willing to sit through whole albums, the understated Bad Witch is hardly going to mitigate that trend. In fact, it comes off as a concession to them.
Reznor recently snapped “suck my entire cock” at a fan who complained online about Bad Witch being classified as a full-length instead of an EP as it was originally intended, the third installment in a series of three that began with 2016’s Not the Actual Events and continued with last year’s Add Violence. But Reznor is a far cry from Kanye West rushing clusters of underbaked albums to the public only to keep tweaking them after the fact, so he certainly gets some benefit of the doubt. The 1992 EP Broken is arguably as canonical and enduring a work as any of the landmark titles in the NIN back catalog, while both Not the Actual Events and Add Violence showed how much substance Reznor tends to cram into a compact format.
Moreover, since reviving the NIN brand with 2013’s Hesitation Marks, Reznor has exemplified the act of aging gracefully by referencing past work while also taking measured risks. Bad Witch, like its two predecessors, contains glints of exploration tempered by maturity and consistency. The aforementioned fade-out of closer “Over and Out” ends a galaxy away from its old-school hip hop intro that flashes back to a time when skeletal beats would echo from boomboxes in the cavernous spaces of the New York subway. It’s as if Reznor were channeling Adrian Belew’s iconic boombox imitation on “Genius of Love”–until the marimbas come in about 30 seconds in and yank the song toward chamber pop.
That said, whether you refer to Bad Witch as an album or an EP, it doesn’t achieve the sense of arcing buildup or completion to stand on its own the way most previous Nine Inch Nails releases do. It also doesn’t help that Reznor has gotten so proficient at incorporating new elements into his established style that new uptempo bangers “Shit Mirror,” “Ahead of Ourselves,” and “God Break Down the Door” don’t stand out as much as they should. On “Ahead of Ourselves,” for example, Reznor welds NIN’s serrated electro-rock with Devo-style roboticism and brittle post-punk that sounds especially vital coming from someone who lived through the post-punk/new wave era as a teenage fan.
Then again, even when Reznor plays saxophone on a couple of cuts (as he’s done several times in the past), his skill level is too high to interject the grit and naiveté he’s aimed for as a veteran artist. “I think the world is getting stranger,” he recently told Beats 1. It would be a pity if his music failed to get stranger with it–since shifting to a more topical focus with 2007’s Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails has grown into a surprisingly potent vehicle for social commentary, if not protest music outright. Could there be a more appropriate time for new NIN than days after surfacing audio of panicked immigrant children separated from their parents?
Now’s not the time for such artists to doubt what they do best because streaming services prioritize LPs–or for them to join-in on the smoke-and-mirrors orgy by calling something an album when it clearly isn’t. Bad Witch should go off like an atom bomb of fury and search for understanding of human depravity. Instead, it’s a strangely tentative gesture from an artist who made his name as a longform auteur.