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December 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm UTC

Yesterday I posted that I was beginning work on an a cappella cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and many people responded by saying they prefer the Johnny Cash cover over Trent’s original. I love both versions. I find the Johnny Cash cover especially heartbreaking because he was so close to the end of his life when he recorded it. In his voice the song becomes a kind of confessional, tinged with regret and acceptance of who he was and the way he lived his life. But…

… I am more haunted by the original version. As I worked on my arrangement this morning I kept asking myself why. Both Trent and Johnny lived their own private versions of hell, lives torn apart by substance abuse and years of self destruction. Both of them are singing from their souls, totally authentic and unfiltered. But I think the thing that does it for me in Trent’s version is that single tritone (#4) that he uses over and over, the same note that Johnny’s cover avoids. (For those of you who haven’t done music theory, the tritone is that ‘odd’ sounding note in the verses, the one that rubs the wrong way). That one note changes the entire meaning of the lyrics to me. In Trent’s version he isn’t looking back on a life of chaos, he is living it. He is right in the eye of the hurricane. And the lyric “the old familiar sting” is followed immediately by that note, musically painting the sting of addiction. (If you watch the video I posted yesterday, you can even see it on Trent’s face for a moment at 0:38, the simultaneous combination of lust and loathing). There is something so raw and brave about singing the things Trent is singing and making sure it doesn’t sound beautiful or romantic but rather ugly and real. That single note insures that.

Even more moving to me is the original NIN version from 1994’s Downward Spiral. In that version the electronics at the chorus lyrics “And you could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt” sounds less like a self-aware benediction – the way it does in Johnny’s or even Trent’s live version – and more like a curse, something he can never, ever escape no matter how much he wants to.

Anyway, I adore the song and love peeling back the layers music and lyric to find the deeper meaning. Would love to hear all of your thoughts and opinions.


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