The Spontaneous Creation of “The Perfect Drug” by Nine Inch Nails and Why Trent Reznor Was Unhappy with the Finished Song

It’s fascinating how artists and fans can have divergent views of the same song. It’s not uncommon for musicians to be weary of playing hits that fans love. There’s always that balance of giving the people what they want, but also being happy with what one does on stage. Some people like to play the deep cuts, and why not?

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In the case of “The Perfect Drug,” Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor was unhappy with the finished song and did not share the same love for it and its big-budget video that many of his fans did. There are different reasons for this. A big one is it was rushed for a movie in 1997, specifically David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and he did not feel he had enough time with it.

Yet there is an immediacy to the track that emerged for exactly that reason. “The Perfect Drug” offers a collision of restrained staccato guitar and Reznor’s subdued vocals with brash chords, angst-ridden shouts, and hyperkinetic drum ‘n’ bass grooves. Most notably, the last third of the song dissolves into a languid haze, as if he were coming down after an intense emotional outburst. That’s highly unusual for a song that snared a good amount of mainstream airplay.

“The Perfect Drug” was recorded and released between two of the biggest NIN albums, The Downward Spiral from 1994 and the 1999 release The Fragile.

“It’s Not My Favorite Piece”

In 2005, Reznor explained on BBC Radio 1’s Rock Show, “It was one of those things where you have a week to do a track for a movie, the mindset that you kind of adapt in that situation, or I did, was ‘let’s go in and experiment and see what happens, and it’s not, y’know, whatever comes out of it, it’s not the end of the world.’ And I think what came out of it, married with a bloated, over-budget video, feels like … the last thing that I would play to somebody if they said play me, y’know, the top hundred songs you’ve written, that probably wouldn’t be in the top hundred. I’m not cringing about it, but it’s not my favorite piece.”

In speaking more recently with VIVA 2 Magazine, Reznor recalled, “At that time I was listening to a lot of drum ‘n’ bass and jungle and stuff. And I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen external influence come out in my own music. And it was a transition period, that’s what I want to stress. It was a time when I was feeling out what I wanted to do artistically and given the liberation of working within the context of a soundtrack, it’s not like a major work. I always treated that as an area to be freer and try things. I’m glad it was in that context. There was never any consideration to include that on [The Fragile]. It really was an area where I was feeling out the landscape to see what I wanted to do.”

Gorey Images

Beyond the intense music was the wonderfully phantasmagorical video for “The Perfect Drug” that was a blue-hued, black-draped collage of images mainly inspired by artist Edward Gorey. In raw footage for the documentary The Last Days of Edward Gorey, director Mark Romanek looked through the NIN video and broke down the major Gorey influence in the costumes, urn, topiary, and other images. Romanek was a fan of the artist’s “hermetically sealed” universe and emulated that concept here. Gorey combined gothic imagery, mystery, and whimsical humor, although in the video the visuals feel more menacing. One might also argue that there was a bit of Edgar Allan Poe in there as well.

Romanek discussed other influences in the video. “The image of the vulture is taken from an old daguerrotype,” he remarked, going through a catalog of references as the clip progressed. “So there is a mix of images. This kind of contraption behind Trent is taken from another old photograph. There’s a certain influence of [director Stanley] Kubrick’s The Shining in here. I always wanted to have someone singing with condensation coming out of their mouth just because it’s a way to see the singing and it seemed to suit this. There’s sort of a narrative to this but it’s completely fractured.”

At one point, Reznor is seen sipping green-colored absinthe, which Romanek said was “the connecting piece between the Old World and the New World. He’s singing about a perfect drug. I think he’s really singing about love, but making that drug absinthe allows me to connect to this late 19th century/early 20th century kind of universe and this absinthe nightmare. We made it green lightning like it’s a bad absinthe trip. This rooftop thing came from being really influenced by Mary Poppins when I was a kid. … There’s a lot of Mary Poppins in a lot of my videos.”

The combination of the music and visuals made for a mesmerizing marriage. “The Perfect Drug” did fairly well, reaching No. 46 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart and No. 11 on the Alternative Airplay radio chart. The single rose to No. 2 in Canada, No. 7 in Finland, and No. 13 in Denmark.

Reznor seems to have softened his stance on “The Perfect Drug” after all these years. Back in 2018, he played it live for the first time, and it still retained the vibe of the original recording. His band dove into it with aplomb. While the song reportedly ranked at the bottom of Reznor’s list of Nine Inch Nails tracks, many fans adore it. And for them, that’s all that really matters.

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Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for FYF

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