Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ is the most staggering piece of work that Trent Reznor has ever penned, although the version with his band is no longer the one that jumps to mind when one thinks of the song. Johnny Cash famously adopted it in 2002. He delivered one of the all-time covers and turned the song upside down. The poignancy of the cover’s timing, whilst Cash was ill and contemplating mortality, acted as a beautifully devastating swan-song as well as one of the finest efforts from the entirety of his career.
Reznor even went so far as saying, “That song isn’t mine anymore”. The cover overawed him, and when he wrote the song years prior, he had no idea of the iconic stature that would eventually be attached to ‘Hurt’. The song deals with addiction struggles and reads like a suicide note, there’s something intangibly profound about both versions of ‘Hurt’, although Cash’s is the definitive version, as even Reznor admits. However, without the luminous lyrics that Reznor perfectly crafted, no ‘Hurt’ and Cash wouldn’t have supplied his final magical moment.
Speaking on Netflix’s Song Exploder, Reznor detailed the arduous journey that led to him writing ‘Hurt’, explaining: “What I was going through when I was writing, The Downward Spiral, was not knowing who I was anymore. I’d seen myself as the kid in the bedroom listening to records, and I wasn’t sure who the guy on stage was. That was becoming distorted and becoming accentuated and a caricature of itself, I think.
“Add that to someone ill-equipped to deal with attention or fame. I’ve always had a sadness and a sense of abandonment haunting me, and I never feel like I fit in anywhere. Always feeling like an outsider, it’s not rational, but it just happens often. Maybe I’m the guy who needs a couple of beers or whatever it might be to understand who I am,” Reznor mused about his headspace at that time.
A critical facet that makes Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ such an emotional and heartbreaking track is its sweeping, atmospheric nature that wraps around the listener. Reznor adds: “We’d come up with a trick where we could take a note on whatever instrument it is, and that sounds like strings, violin, but I’m not sure it was that. Feed it for a second into an infinite reverb, and it gets locked into a tune. It sounds almost pipe-organ-y a little bit because it’s not coming out of a synthesizer, it’s not quite in-tune, it’s not quite bright, it feels human,” the singer solemnly adds.
“I remember sitting at the piano and when the chorus of. ‘What have I become’, it just felt right. I got goosebumps right now just thinking about it. I want you to feel a certain way, it’s not about amazing guitar solos, fantastic groove. It’s goosebumps, that’s the part that matters the most,” Reznor proudly said.
Reznor’s consummately evaluates the brilliance of the song in just one word, ‘goosebumps’. That word explains why ‘Hurt’ is a song that will never age and will forever remain a classic track. It transcends genre, which is why Johnny Cash managed to bring it into his world in 2002. Even though Nine Inch Nails are an industrial rock band, ‘Hurt’ only deals in one currency, and that’s genuine heartfelt emotion.
Reznor wrote this in his most fragile hour, and the rawness of the line, ‘What have I become’ makes it impossible to shake away from the song’s sincerity. The context of the place in their lives that both Reznor and Cash were in when they recorded their versions gives both tracks an iconoclasm that’s rare to find. Whilst Cash quite rightly takes the plaudits for his harrowing take on the track, that wouldn’t have been possible without Reznor facing up to his demons to write it in the first place.