3 People Like This
It’s pretty hard to fathom what two of mass media’s most notorious archaeologists of the mind’s dark corners—film director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and musician Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)—saw in the Facebook fable The Social Network. Its core is little more than a story about ordinary people sharing information with other ordinary people. Yet Fincher seems to have a scored a critical hit, standing it next to Inception as one of the most talked-about movies of 2010. Reznor, meanwhile, adds another bullet point to his resume: the ability to make music that sounds, well, ordinary.
Reznor and longtime studio collaborator Atticus Ross crafted 19 backing tracks for the film about Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to Internet fame and fortune. It continues what has been, for Reznor and NIN, an inexplicably rocky relationship with movie music. (Just compare the mindless “Deep” from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with, say, his soundcraft for Natural Born Killers.) If Reznor’s looking for creative redemption within the genre, The Social Network only provides that in dribs and drabs. That’s because much of his work here with Ross often sounds like NIN gone conventional.
Excepting NIN live and releases like Still, with their particular performance environments, stripping down what we’re used to hearing from Trent Reznor makes him sound like too many other named and nameless performers. Across 87 minutes of music (two-thirds of movie time, conveniently stretching out a physical release to two CDs), while there may not be an unprocessed instrument in The Social Network many sure seem that way. Many sounds are cleaner and clearer than on any NIN release; this makes them unfamiliar, and possibly unwelcome.
Brittle, plastic synths transition from “Intriguing Possibilities” to “Painted Sun in Abstract,” for instance, and insistent beeping ruins the kickoff of “Carbon Prevails.” Songs like “In Motion,” a rather entertaining song overall, seem suited more for an EBM act like Covenant that Reznor would have influenced. And how do we explain a dozen or so piano notes killing the spectacular Cold Meat Industry mood of “3:14 Every Night?” The crystalline synth and tambourine sounds that annoy rather than entertain in “Pieces Form the Whole?” Or the six-note “Hand Covers Bruise” thematic figure resolving to a major key? Really, who knew the perpetually dour Reznor even remembered what a major key was?
Only after Reznor and Ross’ Laibach-like piss-take on Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” requested by Fincher for a pivotal scene, does the soundtrack start to gel, even making parallels with 1999’s underappreciated and overstuffed The Fragile. There are smarter transitions and connected arrangements (“On We March” into “Magnetic”), as well as skillful tweaks of musical hope like “Almost Home” and the pitched-down reprise of “Hand Covers Bruise.”
Yet even here, in the best third of the album, are nods to very non-Reznorian convention. Even with no percussion loop in earshot, “Complication with Optimistic Outcome” is cyclical and swirling like a Daft Punk banger. Surprising clarity again rules in “Soft Trees Break the Fall,” as bell tones rest atop a foundation of siren-like wails and bass grumbles. And ultimately, “The Gentle Hum of Anxiety” sounds like something anyone could make: plain old movie background music.
Of course Trent Reznor should be allowed to progress, change, try new things. Yet the complaint a few have lodged against his new group How to Destroy Angels applies to this soundtrack as well: Taking the man out of NIN takes the NIN (and the sounds fans grew up with and lovingly watched mutate) out of the music maybe a touch too much. In spite of shelving Nine Inch Nails, on The Social Network Reznor and Atticus Ross seem like artists blurring the line between wanting to try a laundry list of new things and not knowing when to leave well enough alone.