Mutation as a theme has always rippled through Trent Reznor’s songwriting, and his most recent work finds him shifting emphasis from personal to social forms of transformation and decay. The Nine Inch Nails frontman may have once fixated on frenzied individual self-destruction, but with the band’s ninth album, Bad Witch—a six-track, 30-minute release that’s technically part of a recent trilogy of EPs—he wrestles with his dismay over being part of a depraved culture that’s showing signs of impending collapse.
While 2016’s Not the Actual Events explores dissociative identities and 2017’s Add Violence brims with paranoia about our increasingly simulated reality, Bad Witch moves past such insular anxieties and more directly acknowledges that society’s chaos is the result of our collective hubris. Amid a kinetic drum loop and flurries of discordant electronic effects, “Ahead of Ourselves” asserts that civilization has devolved into a “celebration of ignorance.” Reznor blames the exponential advancement of technology for magnifying humanity’s basest impulses. The music mirrors an unwieldy, world-gone-mad atmosphere, as a chugging beat lurches in fits and starts and Reznor’s vocals oscillate from frayed, modulated warbles to salvos of abrasive distortion.
Elsewhere, on the fuzzed-out “Shit Mirror,” Reznor internalizes America’s “new face,” one that he can barely recognize and that feeds on “loathing, hate, and fear,” his vocals fluctuating from nearly indecipherable, distortion-laden bursts to breathy whispers. He considers this contorted reflection with a shrug, resigned that the mutation staring back at him “feels all right.”
Bad Witch’s emphasis on disorientation and dissonance is most pronounced on “God Break Down the Door,” as a cyclone of swirling electronic loops, syncopated drums, and saxophone is juxtaposed by a calm, sonorous croon heavily indebted to David Bowie. Reznor belabors that vocal approach on “Over and Out,” a moody, sub-bass-driven track in which he retreats into well-worn sentiments about repeating the same mistakes as time flies by.
Reznor conveys a bleaker and more visceral sense of desperation on the album’s two instrumental tracks. The shape-shifting textures and cacophonous horns of “Play the Goddamned Part” echo the unsettling disorder of our modern discourse, while the Lynchian otherworldliness of the haunting and cinematic “I’m Not from This World” thrums with an ineffable—yet relatable—sense of unease that drives home Bad Witch’s exploration of confronting a once familiar environment rendered alien and grotesque.