Though Nine Inch Nails conceived “Bad Witch” as the final entry in a trilogy of EPs, the six-song, half-hour release is now being called the industrial alt-rock group’s first proper album since 2013. For Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who, after collaborating with Reznor on acclaimed soundtracks like “The Social Network,” became NIN’s first official non-Reznor member in 2016), the nomenclature change is their way of imploring listeners not to treat “Bad Witch” as a mere footnote in the band’s discography, but as a complete, thematically unified statement. Thankfully, the record is engaging and inspired enough to withstand such scrutiny.
“Bad Witch” explodes out of the gate with two corrosive, classic-NIN rockers. Maybe Reznor’s a little old to still be giving songs titles like “[Expletive] Mirror,” but at least he’s directing that rage at some worthy targets. “Mirror” seems to take the perspective of an unrepentant abuser, and when Reznor screams “I think I knew when it crossed the line/ I think I knew the whole [expletive] time,” his contempt is absolute. The God-baiting nihilism of “Ahead of Ourselves” is a little more Reznor-by-numbers, but now that reality has begun catching up with his apocalyptic worldview, the cathartic value of these polemics has never been greater.
That one-two punch proving he’s lost none of his fire, Reznor devotes the rest of “Bad Witch” to more experimental terrain. Instrumentals “Play the [Expletive] Part” and “I’m Not From This World” are like miniature Reznor-Ross film scores, packed with a horror flick’s worth of creepy sound effects and slowly unspooling dread. The influence of David Bowie’s art-rock swan song “Blackstar” is unmistakable (the mournful saxophone and crooned vocals of “God Break Down the Door” being the most obvious examples), yet the barely contained aggression fraying the edges of these songs is pure NIN. Production-wise, the album sounds amazing, every multilayered arrangement and synth tone calibrated for maximum headphone-listening pleasure.
“I’ve always been 10 years ahead of you,” Reznor murmurs on the hypnotically dead-eyed album closer, “Over and Out.” It sure sounds like a boast about Nine Inch Nails’ boundary-pushing legacy, and even if he’s exaggerating a bit, he has a point. Long after most of his Gen-X peers have settled into cozy nostalgia, Reznor is still making records that crackle with restless energy. For an artist who once specialized in massive concept albums, the short-and-sweet approach of “Bad Witch” suits him well.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley