Trent Reznor has been trying to find his place in the world. 30 years into a music career, you have to wonder how it’s possible to remain relevant. In his 90s heyday, he was, after all, a bona-fide rock god, sex symbol, and scourge of the American Christian Right. A battle with addiction and an embrace of sobriety followed, and with it a series of albums that saw Reznor grasping at the air to get to the core of what Nine Inch Nails was. Were they an arena-friendly, industrial-tinged, alt-rock band a la 2005’s With Teeth? Or the high-concept, multimedia, tie-in game creating, internet-embracing entity of 2007’s Year Zero? Inevitably, Reznor’s status as a forward-thinker within the music industry ended up garnering more attention and praise than the actual music he was putting out.

The release strategies behind the all-instrumental collection, Ghosts I-IV (self-released under a PWYW model), and The Slip (given away for free) ended up being more notable than the releases themselves. After a short hiatus, Reznor tried to get back to basics with 2013’s Hesitation Marks, which was released via a major label, and tried desperately to evoke memories of The Downward Spiral, by re-employing the services of artist Russell Mills. That album served as a summation of the Nine Inch Nails sound, albeit from a more mature, self-reflective perspective (Reznor was approaching 50 at the time), but it also suffered from a sense of, well, hesitation, an unwillingness to truly cut loose.

Hesitation Marks also bore the telltale, ahem, marks of the award-winning film scoring work that Reznor had put out with his long standing sound engineer and co-producer, Atticus Ross. In 2016, Ross became the first ever official other member of NIN, and later that year, Not the Actual Events was released, billed as the first in a trilogy of EPs that would explore, wouldn’t you know it, our place in the world, whilst also purportedly being, “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that [Reznor and Ross] needed to make.”

Turns out the EP format suited Reznor’s brand of nihilistic aggression and near-petulant despair perfectly. In short, sharp bursts, his oppressively depressive railings and musings did’t become overly grating. The shorter form seemed to free Reznor musically as well. Not the Actual Events contains more sonic variety than the entirety of its full-length predecessor; from the Broken-era, industrial rock barnstormers ‘Branches/Bones’ and ‘The Idea of You’, to the paranoid, OCD Soundsystem skitter of ‘Dear World,’ to the crushing, shoegaze sludge of ‘Burning Bright (Field on Fire)’ and highlight, ‘She’s Gone Away,’ these tracks thoroughly stretched the definition of what a Nine Inch Nails song could be. The overall sound too was crustier, accommodating of imperfections; just more, well... human.

The envelope-pushing approach continued on to 2017’s Add Violence. Whilst it followed a similar structural pattern, by alternating between fastier, punchier tracks (‘Less Than,’ ‘Not Anymore’) and more experimental, atmospheric compositions (‘The Lovers,’ ‘This Isn’t The Place’), it is set apart by virtue of its stunning closer, ‘The Background World,’ which manages to marry a gloomily slinky Nine Inch Nails track to the avant-garde aesthetic of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops for a 7-minute long outro that better encapsulates the gradual deterioration of mind and body that characterises the human condition than almost anything in the NIN oeuvre. It’s easily the most radical, audacious experiment of Reznor’s career, and raised expectations for Bad Witch to possibly unrealistic levels.

From its first moments, ‘Shit Mirror,’ Bad Witch’s opener, establishes that it’s going to be doing something different. The buzzing guitar riffs and broken sounding drums are soon joined by 60s girl group handclaps, and by the 45 second mark you realise you’re having the most fun you’ve had with a Nine Inch Nails song in years. And that’s before the horns join in for the second round of verses, making the song reminiscent of the future-funk workouts of TV on the Radio. The strength of the melodies stands out; this is the catchiest song in the whole trilogy. “New world, new times, mutation, feels alright,” Reznor repeats in his menacing whisper. The song appears to be about a domestic abuser coming to recognise the monster he has become, but it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to make post-Trump America the subject observing itself in the “shit mirror.”

‘Ahead of Ourselves’ keeps up the pace and energy levels with an insistent beat, interspersed with deliberately imperfect fills that sound like Chemical Brothers-esque breakbeat being performed on a Fisher Price My First Drum Kit. The corrosively swelling and contracting synth that repeatedly pushes the levels into the red keeps nerves on edge, whilst Reznor’s voice, buried in gurgling distortion, delivers his scathing review of humanity:

“Obsolete, insignificant
Antiquated, irrelevant
Celebration of ignorance
Why try change when you know you can’t?”

Words fail Reznor entirely on the two instrumental tracks that make up nearly a third of Bad Witch’s runtime, but both still manage to impart more than enough insight into Reznor’s worldview. The first, ‘Play The Goddamned Part,’ is a saxophone-laden, churning dirge of a track, but not in a bad way. It sounds like Reznor had recently been listening to ‘The National Anthem’ by Radiohead and fancied trying his hand at creating an equally chaotic squall. The overall effect is disorientating, especially as we are not used to hearing such evidently human-created sounds in a Nine Inch Nails song. Whilst Reznor has been known to play the saxophone, he has only done so on record a handful of times (notably on ‘While I’m Still Here,’ the penultimate track off Hesitation Marks, and before that, on ‘26 Ghosts III’). The persistent use of deliberate off-notes plays into Reznor’s decades long fascination with dissonance, but there’s something intrinsically more disturbing about these sounds coming from horns than if they had been synthesised. You can hear the breath in them, the life, the mistakes, the desperation.

If ‘Play The Goddamn Part’ feels uneasy and discomfiting, then ‘I’m Not From This World’ represents a complete descent into horror. Drawing heavily on the metronomic atmospherics of Reznor and Ross’ deeply effective soundtrack work, ‘I’m Not From This World’ could serve as the score to a scene featuring a relentless killer in some dystopian future hellscape. The booming drums, and various scrapes, squeals, clanks, and crashes combine to profoundly unnerving effect and I am drawn to make comparisons with the equally terrifying work of Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, who Atticus Ross has also collaborated with. However, whilst ‘I’m Not From This World’ is certainly effective in its own right as an exercise in sound designing the sensation of creeping mortal dread and the horror of being hunted, it doesn’t feel entirely of a piece with the rest of the EP, especially as it sits between ‘God Break Down The Door’ and closer, ‘Over and Out,’ breaking the mood and momentum somewhat.

These two songs are what Bad Witch will truly be remembered for. Much has already been made of the evident influence of David Bowie’s Blackstar on the aesthetic of advance single, ‘God Break Down The Door,’ not just in those jazzy horns that exist in perfect counterpoint to the drum’n’bass esque rhythm section, but also in Reznor’s vocal delivery, which sees him deliver his implorations to God in an affected croon that can’t help but bring to mind his dearly departed friend and collaborator. There appears to be a deliberate attempt to replicate the sound that the two developed separately for each of their contributions to the soundtrack of David Lynch’s 1997 cinematic noir-mindfuck, Lost Highway.

“There aren’t any answers here,” sings Reznor, which both recalls the fact that Lost Highway famously resisted straightforward interpretation, and serves as a bleak, concluding statement on the grand theme of this trilogy of EPs: namely that question about our place in the world. In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, Reznor explained that each EP represented a different approach to that central question.

Not The Actual Events took the angry, self-destructive stance, railing against a world that felt changed to the point of unrecognisability, whilst Add Violence explored notions of simulated reality, and finding the reason for one’s sense of alienation and deteriorating sanity in external factors. Bad Witch lands on something even darker still; that there’s no real reason for any of this and yet, as closer, ‘Over and Out’ explores, we are still cursed with a sense that time is running out on us. Life is meaningless, but, paradoxically, still means everything to us.

‘Over and Out’ again bears the influence of Bowie in Reznor’s desperate, heartfelt croon. “Time is running out/I don’t know what I’m waiting for,’ he repeats over a backdrop of skittering beats and blips and bloops, as a seductively, gloomy bassline carries the song towards its static-laden, slowburn crescendo. He sounds vulnerable and lost amidst the swirling maelstrom, as he resignedly muses about the world falling into familiar patterns, history repeating itself. Reznor himself feels like he is caught in a loop: “Feels like I’ve been here before” is, in fact, a line that astute listeners, and fans of metatextuality, will recognise from ‘Branches/Bones,’ the very first track off Not the Actual Events.

As someone who has been listening to a playlist of all three EPs together on repeat for the past week or so, this detail cements something that quickly became self-evident: namely, that these releases are definitely intended to be listened to as a complete work now that all of the component pieces are out in the world. Together, they constitute the best “album” to bear the Nine Inch Nails moniker since The Downward Spiral. After decades of grasping at air, Reznor has, with the help of Atticus Ross, struck upon a sound that suits his vision. Across the sixteen tracks that make up this entire project they’ve by and large avoided the awkward moments that have made listeners cringe on previous releases, they’ve finally nailed how to produce and mix Reznor’s voice so that his still somewhat heavy-handed lyricism doesn’t distract attention from the considerable craft that’s gone into the music, and they’ve found a way to organically explore new sonic avenues which mean that, while Reznor might feel like he’s trapped in a loop, doomed to continually find himself back where he’s already been, Nine Inch Nails are no longer simply repeating themselves.