Released September 22, 1992
31 min, 35 sec
Broken is the document of an angry man locked into a life he wanted, but not the way he intended.
It’s not what anyone expected as a follow-up to the synthpop sounds of 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine. Broken is loud, distorted, and angry. The album’s songs intentionally clip and crunch, as Reznor struggles to scream over his own creation. In all honesty, Broken is not a follow-up. It is a reboot of Nine Inch Nails.
Signs of this reboot were evident as early as 1990, during the tours in support of Pretty Hate Machine. Reznor’s ragtag band reinterpreted the album in a much heavier, more aggressive light, relying more on guitars and heavy drums than electronics, culminating in an incredibly aggressive Lollapalooza set in 1991. That year also saw the live debut of “Wish,” which would become Broken‘s breakout single, and one of the band’s most successful songs to date.
Reznor was frustrated with how TVT treated him and Pretty Hate Machine. A group of producers had been forced upon him, taking the album and re-shaping it in their diverse images. TVT wanted something even more radio-friendly, more pop-oriented, as a follow-up, and attempted to force Reznor to do what they wanted with his own music. In retaliation, Reznor recorded Broken in secret with Flood, the only producer retained from Pretty Hate Machine, in a wide number of studios all over the country, so as not to let the label know what he was doing, and avoid their unwanted influence on his music. The need for isolation and the situation with TVT drove Reznor into an even darker mindset, and Broken abandoned Pretty Hate Machine‘s hints of pop for a full-on, electronically distorted assault on the ears.
The album begins with “Pinion,” a short, repeating guitar riff that serves as a lead-in to proper opener “Wish,” a song about wishing for a better situation for the protagonist to be in. He angrily denounces the life he is stuck in, expressing a lack of desire for anything beyond escape. This is the start of Broken‘s central theme of nihilism, continued in “Last,” which opens with a loud, percussive guitar riff. Reznor’s vocals are screamed throughout the verses, something he could not replicate in live form until 2007, and even then, in a reduced form.
“Help Me I Am in Hell” provides a quiet interlude for the album, with a slow, ominous guitar riff that never builds anywhere, though it keeps the listener on their toes, just in case it does build. The reprieve is short-lived, however, as “Happiness in Slavery” starts with a screech from Reznor, exhibiting the most overtly industrial influences in the entire album. The song’s beat is composed of a mix of guitars, synthesized percussion, and sampled machinery noises, creating an often-unintelligible cacophony of noise that matches the protagonist’s horrendously broken mindset. This song is the most overtly negative track on the album; though Broken as a whole deals with nihilism and bleakness, “Happiness in Slavery” is the absolute bottom in this regard. Reznor uses slavery as a metaphor, indicating that the protagonist is locked into a life he cannot stand, but must bear with, because there is no hope of ever escaping; hence, finding happiness in slavery.
The album’s primary tracklist concludes, appropriately, with “Gave Up,” concluding the album’s story, so to speak, where the protagonist notes that he has tried his best to keep his chin up, but simply cannot do it, and has thus given up any hope of finding something better. Reznor’s vocals are disturbingly distorted during the verses, reminiscent of a gremlin, before opening back up to clean vocals for the chorus. The track descends into utter chaos by the end, its instrumentation and samples completely desyncing and crushing each other to the point of being absolutely incomprehensible. It’s a very bleak, hopeless note to end on, but then, the entire album is like that, so it’s not really that much of a surprise either.
However, Broken does not end here. Reznor initially wanted a 12” single to be released around the time of Lollapalooza, featuring a cover and a semi-cover recorded at the same time as Broken, but the label, predictably, refused. Reznor, not wanting his work to go to waste, decided to include the tracks with Broken, but felt that they did not thematically fit the rest of the album; as a result, he had them pressed on a 3” mini-CD packaged inside the album, to maintain a sense of physical separation from the main album. 250,000 copies of this version were pressed; however, when Reznor found out that some retailers were stripping out the mini-CD and selling it separately, he instead re-configured the release, with the two bonus tracks separated from the main album by 91 four-second tracks of silence, leaving them at the very end of the CD medium’s possible track-list. This 99-track version of Broken is far more common, as it became the default version of the album.
“Physical” is an Adam and the Ants cover, depicting an abusive relationship that the protagonist cannot, or will not, escape. The song’s proper title is “Physical (You’re So),” but the parenthetical is dropped in Reznor’s credits for the song, for some reason. The song’s masochistic themes feel too, for lack of a better term, consensual and positive, to fit in with the rest of the album, as there is an implied pleasure in “Physical” that is very much absent on Broken.
“Suck” is a little stranger. Written by Pigface, Reznor actually co-wrote the song during his brief stint in the band, and re-interpreted it on his own for the aforementioned 12”. Reznor’s credits for the song created a bit of a rift between him and Pigface frontman Martin Atkins; Reznor credited the song to “T. Reznor/Pigface,” grouping the rest of the band together, which Atkins took exception to. He fired back in a compilation featuring “Suck” that credited the song to “whatever Trent says. Really. No shit.” The song features a beat that feels out of time with itself, but never actually slips out of time, instead hanging just on the precipice of de-syncing. “Suck” is primarily about drugs, through the metaphor of a temptress and deity; like “Physical,” this subject matter doesn’t line up very well with Broken, and Reznor noted in an interview that it was a bit of “tongue-in-cheek” cover anyway.
Broken permanently shifted the course of Nine Inch Nails. The aggression and intense negativity of the album’s tracks provided the catalyst for the more nuanced, diverse sound of landmark album The Downward Spiral, while also providing Reznor with a way out of TVT. Fed up with the label’s bullshit, he negotiated with Interscope Records to move over to them, with TVT retaining a cut of his sales as a bargaining measure. Reznor was also granted his own vanity label in Nothing Records, which he used sporadically throughout the 1990s until its dissolution in 2005. Reznor did not tour behind Broken; instead, he threw himself straight into the recording sessions for The Downward Spiral, which would finally see release in 1994, rocketing Nine Inch Nails into the mainstream. As such, Broken is a stepping stone, the first move of the new Nine Inch Nails, a band that would come to define industrial music (and all sorts of other genres) for the next two decades.