Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Scott on NIN Vs Cash

[Guest blogger Scott wrote this as a response to my post about Young@Heart's cover of Coldplay's "Fix You." I am glad we have more stuff about music on here now.]

Trent Reznor's "Hurt"

Johnny Cash's "Hurt"

A few years back, Nine Inch Nails’ Industrial-aggro-ballad "Hurt" became an unlikely swan song for Johnny Cash. Without changing a single word, Cash managed to take what many had seen as a whiny, self-pitying tune written by Trent Reznor at the height of his popularity and transform it into something far more poignant.

Sometimes, a performer is able to completely change the meaning of a song simply by being who they are. Cash changes very little in the arrangement of the song other than removing the percussion. Most of what he brings to the table is his voice; instead of Reznor’s nasal whine we get Cashes distinctive baritone, a little worse for wear due to his declining health, which brings a level of authority to the lyrics that Reznor just isn’t capable. As the Who once said “It’s the singer not the song, that makes the music move along.”

Reznor’s lyrics are completely transformed in his hands and take on whole new meanings that Reznor couldn’t have even imagined when he wrote them.

“The Needle tears a hole, that old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away but I remember everything.”

When a Gen X musician sings about a “needle” in the mid 90s, he is obviously singing about heroin addiction. When Cash sings it, it could be about his own battles with addiction, but it also conjures images of a sick, old man in a hospital having to undergo IV after IV. Also, when Reznor sings “I remember everything” he’s talking about a couple of decades; Cash is singing about a lifetime.

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.”

Keeping with the theme of addiction, the Nine Inch Nails version is obviously Reznor feeling sorry for himself. Everyone “goes away” because he, and more specifically his addiction, pushes them away. For Cash, they go away because he’s old and all of his old buddies are dying (Waylon Jennings passed about a year or so before his recording of the song). Again, Reznor’s problem is preventable; he can stop if he really wants. Cash’s problem is, however, inevitable; as you get older people you know will die.

The chorus provides another excellent example, when Reznor Sings “You can have it all, my empire of dirt,” he is singing of an ‘empire’ that is, at best, a few years old and, since that empire was built by a man best known for writing a song with the chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”, there are many who would, indeed, classify it as one made of “dirt.” However, when Cash sings the same line, he is coming from the perspective of a legendary musician with a legacy a half-century old. For him to call his empire ‘dirt’ is a much more powerful statement of a man who has a greater perspective on what truly matters in life.

The final line of the song displays exactly what makes the Cash version superior:

“If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself. I would find a way.”

When Reznor sings this line, he is still a young man; if he truly wanted to ‘start again’, he could. This is why the song comes off as whiny; it’s a hopeless song written by someone who still has hope but is too blind to see it. When Cash sings the line, it is too late for him to ‘start again’; he’s old and he’s dying. He can’t start again. In Reznor’s hands, the song is a suicide note; in Johnny’s, it’s a last will and testament.


Marc Caputo said...

Scott: Absolutely masterful. I can't view the video right now (I'm at work - damn DOE!), so I'm going from memory. This is one of the (sadly) few songs where song and video complement each other perfectly. One cannot be discussed without experiencing the other; once that has been done, they are forever linked.

In the video, what I remember as being most devastating was the intercutting of old, dying Johnny with young, vibrant Johnny and the closed up Cash Museum. That June Carter Cash, who adds such a calming, quiet grace to her husband's litany of sins, died before him adds to the tragedy and also ends up adding to the power of this video.

I would suffer another 20 years of shitty videos and "Spring Break" mentality to see another piece of art like this in my lifetime.

Christian said...

Great little analysis, however a correction: He did change one word. From "I Wear This Crown of Shit" to "I Wear This Crown of Thorns."

And I like NIN, but the Cash version is, as you explained, that much more powerful. Even Reznor likes it a lot better.

Ping33 said...

The Rez version suffers like many NIN songs do because The Rez can't sing. It's still a great song either way... especially on NIN's Still 'album' (it was a accustic bonus disk in the ltd ed of their/his live album All that You Can Leave Behind)

As in Ghosts 1-9 and the various instrumentals throughout the halos, NIN would be better searved with almost any singer who wasn't The Rez.

How much BETTER is the music than the words? How much better are the words than the singing.

The Rez lets himself down each and every time

scott91777 said...


Oops... you're totally right... he did change a single word... but it was just a single word. Touche!

Not Ultros said...

Let it also be noted that the Cash video's director, Mark Romanek, helped push a lot of NINE INCH NAILS' MTV identity by directing their clips for 'Closer' and 'The Perfect Drug.'

David Golding said...

I don't like Cash's version for a number of reasons.

1. In the context of rock, covers are admissions of influence (best played live) or gimmicks. Rock music, when it is good, is about the new. Covers belong to classical, folk, and country music.

2. While I think there are good covers, pained pronunciation and acoustic instruments is such a cliched and sentimental approach to take. It's kitsch.

3. 'Hurt' isn't even a song. There is always a different between those who interpret a piece as a song or music. Scott's post shows he is a lover of songs, hence his emphasis on lyrics and pronounciation. I'm a lover of music, and lyrics and singing are just part of the story. But in this case, NIN's 'Hurt' isn't even a separate piece to be considered as song or music, it is the last movement in The Downward Spiral, a unified piece. To chop it off is to do a great disservice.

Scott91777 said...

I recognize that lyrics and music are a unified thing when discussing a song. It's somethign I try to stress to my students. The concept of a song being merely 'poetry put to music' is bullshit. And I do think it is the performance, the quality of Cash's voice, that brings new meaning to the song. There are some covers that are extraordinary, Hendrix's "All Along The Watctower" comes to mind but that version changes so much about the arrangement that it's barely a 'cover.' But I don't see covers as being irrellevant in terms of rock music. Especially since, more and more, rock music is becoming more of a folk art form. I would agree that covers are best when they reimagine songs. Like the afformentioned Hendrix cover but sometimes subtlties can make a huge difference.

One of the great things about popular music is that it can mean so many different things to many different people. This is what is great about the Cash cover.

I can see what you're saying, but I am a lover of both music and lyrics.

scott91777 said...

Hey, Geoff, how about a posting where we all list some of our favorite, or what we would consider to be exceptional, covers. It could be fun.

Mikey said...


David Golding makes an interesting point - so does Cash then turn this into a song?

I like Cash's version because it retrofits the NIN, making it seem trite and callous, unearned (as if it had always been so and we'd just never seen it before).

Good post!

Casey said...

I like the whole idea of a list of the best covers. I vote for "wonderful world" by joey ramone. Which he recorded just weeks before he died, much like cash with hurt.

Ping33 said...

Best cover: Happiness is a Warm Gun by the Breeders. Turns one of the goofiest Beatles songs into a haunting dirge.

neilshyminsky said...


1. I don't really understand this first complaint. Cash is country music.

2. I had the same initial thought - the stripped down, pained delivery is too often precious and/or cliché. But, as Scott notes, I think that it's e/affective here because Reznor's version was already too precious - Cash gives it a gravitas that Reznor simply hadn't yet earned.

3. I think that the complaint that 'Hurt' isn't a song but the end of a movement isn't entirely fair - this could be used as an argument against any number of songs pulled off of 'concept' albums. Or any song on an album, really. And given that Cash wasn't about albums but, rather, singles, performing the song is isolation also serves to sever the song from Reznor (who is all about the album) and make it more consistent with Cash's output.

David Golding said...

Hi Neil,

1. Yes Cash is, but the material isn't, and, as a listener, I'm not.

2. I don't know what all this talk about gravitas is about. It's like saying NIN hasn't earned tuna with the song. Sure, they haven't, but it's not relevant. It makes sense for Cash to deliberately misread the song, but not for critics. (Also, pro Cash arguments would be more convincing from people who liked the original.)

3. I wouldn't say the same for Sgt Pepper's or just any album. But some albums are one piece (or two, in the case of vinyl albums). NIN even skews the track marks from where each "song" "starts".

Say what you like about Cash's version by itself, but NIN's 'Hurt' comes at the end of a large body of sound that gives it its meaning. Crossing the finish line first is relatively meaningless if you haven't run the marathon.

4. Cash's version is the one they can play in Walmart.

neilshyminsky said...


1. I'm not really sure that any song can't be country - if you can translate it to another genre, then it simply is, isn't it? I think it works because the lyrics sound like they could be an original Cash song.

2. Even if Trent recorded it now, when the song would perhaps be resonant in an entirely new way, I'd still complain that he's too whiny and sincere. And I say that as someone who owns all of his albums from Pretty Hate Machine through the Fragile. Sometimes I enjoy listening to Trent whine, sometimes I don't - I'm not saying that Cash's version is necessarily better, but that it manages something entirely different.

3. And yet Joe Cocker managed to pull Ringo's song out and do something very memorable with it. And A Day In The Life still stands out singularly as something of but easily separable from Pepper. As for the marathon - I think that Cash's career makes for a good substitution.

4. Heh.

David Golding said...

Hi Neil,

On 1, yes and no. Yes, a song, in the sense I sketched above, can be country. Really it's just a set of words accompanied by some hints. But no, a piece of music, i.e. the sound made by playing 'Hurt', Track 14 of the CD The Downward Spiral, will never be country, it will only ever be what it already is; Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' is a derivative but different piece of music.

On 3, I was saying Sgt Pepper's is an album composed of individual pieces (though they also work together), so they can be "pulled out". But I think Joe Cocker's cover of 'With A Little Help From My Friends' is miserable! :-)

scott91777 said...


For the record, I like the NIN version of the song, I just like Cash's better. You're right in that it works better and has a greater impact when viewed as the end movement of The Downward Spiral. However, when viewed individually, Cash's version can stand on it's own (and also work as part of the larger work that was American IV: when the man comes around).

You don't like Joe Cocker's version of of "A Little Help From My Friends"? WTF is wrong with you? :)

And, hey, just because they can play something at Wal-Mart doesn't mean it's bad. I reccomend reading Chuck Klosterman's essay "Toby over Moby" where he defends so-called 'Wal-Mart Country'


Bravo about Cash's career being the marathon.

scott91777 said...


I would also tend to agree with you that most covers are admissions of influence. As an excellent example, while I find Guns N'Roses "Knockin' On Heavens Door" and "Live and Let Die" to be better than the originals, their covers of "Mama Kin" and "Sympathy For The Devil" are, as you said, admissions of influence that are,basically, overly faithful to the originals.