The Last Great Song of the 20th Century: Trent Reznor's "Hurt"!

Admittedly, it was easy for die-hard industrial fans to dismiss Trent Reznor's existence because he'd been in a number of cheesy Ohio new wave bands and knew for a fact that he completely co-opted his sound and aesthetic from Ministry's Al Jourgensen. Reznor's version of Ministry's Twitch, while half as good, sold twice as much and ultimately brought industrial rock to the suburbs.

What's comical is that you couldn't have predicted it, planned it, or even hypothesized about it:

After all, he'd signed to a record label known only for selling compilations of TV theme songs. It was hard to tell who'd been crazier; Trent for thinking TVT was a good fit or label head Steve Gottleib for pinning the future of his label on a kid from Cleveland who makes industrial dance music.

Imagine everyone's surprise when the album goes double platinum, accomplishing what the major labels themselves were proving less and less capable of doing themselves: promoting new acts with sounds that broke the mold.

In the wake of PHM's meteoric success, of course, came the pressure to not only meet, but surpass those sales numbers with an album that sounded exactly like the first. Reznor balked at being told what he could and could not do by the label and refused to give the label a second album.

Instead, Reznor and producer Flood began recording in secret and, when done, presented the finished masters to Interscope Records, which released the Broken EP in September of 1992, almost three years after Pretty Hate Machine.

While the EP did include a deconstructed version of Adam + The Ants' "Physical", there is very little else to suggest this collection was anything more than a stop-gap while Reznor attempted to rectify his label situation.

With the release of The Downward Spiral in 1994, Reznor created an album that, in hindsight, was literally without precedent. It was a brutal, mechanical record that made full use of the latest studio gadgetry to create ambiance and atmosphere, as opposed to the crushing grind of the world ending, as had been explored on Broken.

At the end of the album was a song called "Hurt" that became the album's fourth promotional single, but did not chart. The song's minimal arrangement draws the focus to Trent's whispered vocal as the music slowly builds, then recedes yet again.

The song's greatness wouldn't truly be obvious to the world until eight years later when Johnny Cash would reinterpret the song with the aid of producer Rick Rubin for his American IV album.

Cash, by then, was in failing health, but both strength and weakness combine to create an undeniably potent performance that takes Reznor's song and immerses it in a humanity that did not previously exist. Upon hearing the song and seeing the music video, even Reznor conceded that the song was no longer his. For him, hearing someone else singing the lyrics to his most personal song felt akin to someone else kissing his girlfriend, but when he saw the video, Reznor was almost moved to tears:
"Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that's something that matters to me. It's not so much what other people think but the fact that this guy felt that it was worthy of interpreting."

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