“The Only Time” Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine 1989
At the crossroads of sex and religion, there lie Prince and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and though these artists weren’t the genesis for my thoughts on these themes, they certainly informed my view. In Prince’s world sex is nasty and fun, but it also lives alongside absolute faith. Reznor’s vision is darker, blacker, more violent and questioning, borderline hopeless. Reznor credits Prince for “ideas and sounds” on Pretty Hate Machine, and nowhere is that influence more tangible to me than on this provocative track.
I have written at length about the influence of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, but “The Only Time” has always been my favorite song on the album. This darkly raging exploration of uninhibited lust and the act of losing oneself in another opens with the simple declaration: “I’m drunk.” Reinforcing the emptiness of the moment, this is followed by the admission that “right now I’m so in love with you / And I don’t want to think too much about what we should or shouldn’t do.”
As much as I love the shocking vulgarity of first verse’s “Lay my hands on heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars / While the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car,” it’s the delivery of the next line that seals the deal for me: “Nothing quite like the feel of something new.” The idea of this graphic image being almost disposable gets to the heart of the detachment from reality that was a cornerstone of late ’80s/early ’90s young adulthood.
Looking back on my relationships of the era, I realize just how influenced by this song they were. I took to heart the notion that there needed to be turmoil to make a relationship real, to really feel. Reznor’s notion that “This is the only time I really feel alive” in the chorus echoed all the self-absorption of my late teens and early 20s tortured soul mindset, and resulted in many-a subconsciously sabotaged relationship.
Clever turns of phrase like “My moral standing is lying down” and imagery of “The sweat in your eyes, the blood in your veins are listening to me” work perfectly in front of the music’s clashing industrial synthesizer noise and looped breathing samples. Aggressive animalistic basslines thrust my reeling mind through an off-kilter fun house of emotional damage in the same way they propelled me through crowds at those early live shows.
I listen to this song nearly 25 years later, and I am immediately transported back to New Year’s Eve 1989, I’m in the music store I worked at through late high school and college, I’m at all those early shows at the Phantasy and Empire, I’m fucking up relationships that deserved better, and words are pouring from the tip of my Sharpie on to unruled paper at a furious pace. The sway this song and this album have over me is staggering, a catalyst to lay bare everything that was swirling inside me.