Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2021/ Brian and Trent

Brian and Trent

Two of my musical mainstays have been the Beach Boys and Nine Inch Nails.

I first got into the Beach Boys in high school. I was listening to the radio and they played Good Vibrations, which I had never heard before. It blew my mind. That got me into their early hits, and (much) later their later output.

Thankfully, I did not get into Nine Inch Nails until after I had started grad school. I shudder to think what would have happened had I gotten into NIN at high school like all of my peers. Strangely, I often use NIN as work music; I developed a fairly complex Drupal 6 site while listening to Happiness in Slavery on endless repeat for weeks and weeks.

On the surface, the Beach Boys and Nine Inch Nails seem like pretty different musical groups, but I was listening to The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails the other day, and it occurred to me just how similar it is to Smile, the famous 1967 lost album from the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds was supposedly revolutionary because it layered sounds and incorporated real-world effects (dogs barking, bicycle horns) in an innovative way. Good Vibrations went further, assembling different musical movements. The mythical Smile was supposed to go further than that, patching together layer after layer of snippets into a unified whole. The Fragile is very much an album of soundscapes created by layering snippets of sounds on top of each other. I suppose that with computers this layering is easy now, but The Fragile and The Downward Spiral take this pretty far.

That got me to thinking about the similarities and differences between Brian Wilson and Trent Reznor. Brian Wilson is seen as the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, composing strange and beautiful harmonies. Trent Reznor is the main force (and for many years the only permanent member) of Nine Inch Nails. His fans also consider him a musical genius, especially for his early work. There are parallels in their work and their stories, but there are important differences too.


Both of them created a landmark work that would define their careers. For Brian Wilson it was Pet Sounds, which he supposedly composed while the rest of the Beach Boys were on tour. For Reznor it was The Downward Spiral, his 1994 megahit with its infamous single Closer. No matter what either of them subsequently did or do, they will forever be measured against those achievements.

Good Vibrations was a single released after Pet Sounds. It was supposed to be part of the Smile album (often stylized as SMiLE, but I won't do that). I feel the NIN correspondence is probably Closer. Like Good Vibrations, Closer is a deeply layered song with multiple movements. I often neglect the "Through the forest/Among the trees" bridge in Closer, but it is critical to the structure of the song much in the same way the "Gotta keep those/Good vibrations happening with her" bridge is in Good Vibrations. If you have to pick a single song that characterises the groups, then Closer and Good Vibrations are it.

Followups: Smile and The Fragile

Where things get interesting for me are the followups to those landmark albums. Brian Wilson spent 1966-67 recording snippets to assemble into Smile, but for some complicated reasons the album was not released. Apparently many of the songs never came together in their final form; instead Wilson continued to compose and record snippets for the album, and the project collapsed. In 1967, the Beach Boys salvaged some of the Smile material and released Smiley Smile, which critics claimed was a vastly inferior album. Smile remained an unreleased, mysterious masterpiece for decades. Fans would speculate about its contents and mixed bootleg versions of the album.

In the early 2000s the mystery was supposed to be put to rest; a musician and Beach Boys fan named Darian Sahanaja first worked with Wilson to tour Pet Sounds, and then followed up by helping Wilson and Van Dyke Parks assemble a version of Smile released as Brian Wilson Presents Smile, re-recording the material with Wilson's contemporary band. The 2004 release was well-received but did not put the mystery to rest, and in 2011 the Beach Boys released The Smile Sessions containing a lot of the material from the 1966-67 sessions. The first part of this collection is a compilation of a complete Smile album (mostly) from those original recordings. Even this has not put the mystery to rest completely, but a lot of the mythology around Smile has evaporated in a way it probably wouldn't have if Sahanaja had not helped Wilson break through and finally complete a version of the album.

Meanwhile, Trent Reznor took five years to release a followup to The Downward Spiral. There was lots of anticipation; The Downward Spiral was one of the defining albums of the mid-1990s "alternative rock" movement. Reznor spent two years recording sonic textures and snippets. He and a producer named Alan Moulder put together those snippets into collages that would become the songs on The Fragile. The NIN Wiki has a good quote from Moulder about the songwriting process for the album. In many ways this songwriting process reminds me a lot of Uncle Wikipedia's description of the recording process for Smile.

The difference, of course, is that Reznor finished The Fragile, but from reading Uncle Wikipedia I am not sure this was a given. The Wikipedia entry quotes Reznor as locking himself up in "a house on the ocean" and only having one song to show for it. The NIN Wiki also quotes Bob Ezrin, who was brought in to sequence and edit the album into a coherent whole. I find myself wondering whether Reznor would have pushed through and completed the album if not for his collaborators.

In principle, Brian Wilson had lots of collaborators, including the other Beach Boys and his lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks. But none of them could get Wilson to finish songs and get Smile out until the early-2000s, when Darian Sahanaja helped Brian get the job done. My belief is that Sahanaja both earned Wilson's trust and had the managerial skills to keep the project moving in a way that others had not. It may have been the case that nobody would have been able to keep 1967 Brian Wilson focused enough to finish the project, given the other things going on with him at the time. But it is an interesting to speculate what might have happened if someone like Sahanaja had been in Wilson's life back then.

The Fallout

Smile did not get finished, and Wilson apparently viewed this as one of the biggest failures of his career. He remained resistant to reviving the project until the 2000s.

The Fragile was released, and although it was heavily promoted and had initial success it quickly fell off the charts. Reznor has repeatedly said that he thought everybody hated the album at the time. There was the infamous Pitchfork review that panned the album. Certainly, the album was not The Downward Spiral, and I get the feeling that NIN fans wanted The Downward Spiral. NIN lost a lot of its lustre in the mainstream, although it maintained a devoted fanbase and continued to sell out shows. Reznor did not produce another album until 2005, when he released With Teeth.

History has been kind to both albums. A lot of the mystique that had been keeping Smile in public consciousness faded once the 2004 album was released, but that 2004 album was well-reviewed. The 2011 Smile Sessions was received even more favourably. Neither version sounds revolutionary today in the way it might have in 1967, but both are respected as good albums.

Like many, I was confused by Brian Wilson Presents Smile when I first listened to it in the mid-2000s. After Good Vibrations I had mostly gravitated to early Beach Boys material. I am pretty sure I had heard Pet Sounds, but I did not see why it was revolutionary and it did not sound much like the Beach Boys tunes I liked. In that context, Smile is mystifying. Having listened to more of the Beach Boys catalogue since then, I appreciate the album(s) better now, and understand a little (although certainly not completely) why they are well-regarded.

These days, many fans consider The Fragile Reznor's best work. As with many other NIN albums, it takes time for The Fragile to grow on you. When I first started listening to it I thought it was overly long and boring, with stupid lyrics and only a few of the angry guitar rockers I tend to gravitate towards. But over the last while (especially during the lockdown) I found myself listening to it more and more, and now I find myself listening to it more frequently than other albums I thought I liked better (namely Year Zero). I certainly listen to it more than The Downward Spiral, but that might be because The Downward Spiral is such an intense and dangerous listen for me.

Now that I have a fairly-good quality headset for pandemic commuications, I appreciate The Fragile much more than when I depended upon cheap dollar-store earbuds. I still think some of the lyrics are stupid, but even some of the simpler songs really work, and the overall themes of the album makes more sense to me now.

Overall, I think the fallout of Smile's non-completion and The Fragile's early reception were really damaging to their creators. Although history has been kinder to their legacies, I feel both Brian and Trent bear the scars of those experiences.

Drugs and Brains

Another parallel between Brian Wilson and Trent Reznor that has been on my mind a lot lately has had to do with drugs and mental health. Both of them were suffering a lot as they were creating Smile and The Fragile, and both were taking lots and lots of drugs.

Brian Wilson went crazy. Uncle Wikipedia says he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and his behavior at the time really makes it seem as if he was breaking down mentally. These days, pot is usually thought of as a benign drug, but perhaps not for those predisposed to schizophrenia. In reading biographies of people with schizophrenia, I have observed that several of them describe heavy marijuana use preceding the subject's initial schizophrenic episode. Schizoaffective disorders are not the same as schizophrenia, but clearly Wilson has suffered from psychotic breaks and paranoid delusions. He famously shelved the track for Fire from the Smile album because he thought recording the track had contributed to a nearby inferno.

In addition to marijuana and hashish, Brian apparently took a lot of methamphetamines. Having interacted with people on crystal meth here in KW, I can only imagine that this harmed Wilson's wellbeing further.

It is worth noting that Wilson was 24 at the time he was recording Pet Sounds, which is right around the age when schizophrenia tends to manifest.

Wilson continued to struggle with mental health challenges for years. He famously became the patient of Eugene Landy who started out as his psychotherapist and progressively took control of more and more of Wilson's life until he was coproducing albums. People taking advantage of Brian Wilson is nothing new; time and time again, people would push "musical genius" Brian to compose music and go on tour regardless of his feelings or well-being. There are some truly cringeworthy Beach Boy reunion clips where Brian is supposedly in concert, sitting at a keyboard and barely participating, clearly not wanting to be there. Beach Boys album after Beach Boys album would be marketed as "Brian Wilson is back!" because someone had coaxed Brian to contribute to a few tracks.

To my eyes, Brian Wilson comes across as a tragic figure. I am hoping that Darien Satanaja was not another one of the exploiters, but I cannot be sure. From the Youtube footage of the Pet Sounds and Smile concerts from the early 2000s, it seems as if Brian was engaged and happy at the time. I think there have been a few people who have prioritized the well-being of Brian Wilson the human being over Brian Wilson the musical genius, and I sincerely hope that Satanaja was one of them. (Jeffrey Foskett, who toured as part of Brian Wilson's band at the time, also comes across as someone who helped Wilson navigate the day to day.)

It seems pretty clear that Brian Wilson never recovered from whatever happened during those Smile years, and that he went through some pretty rough times afterwards. I wonder when (and how much) he has enjoyed making music over the years. Sometimes he has seemed enthusiastic -- even obsessed -- with musical endeavors, and sometimes it seems he is pushed into trying to reproduce the early Beach Boys stuff that made him famous.

What about Trent? In some ways I feel that Trent Reznor was in a pretty similar place to Brian Wilson. Although Reznor (to my knowledge) has never had schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, at the time of The Downward Spiral and The Fragile he clearly had a lot of self-loathing, and was heavily into drugs. Quite frequently he talks about the years of touring The Fragile as some of the worst of his life. Several superstars of the mid-90s alternative rock genre are gone now -- Kurt Cobain, of course, but also Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots (drug overdose), Chris Cornell of Soundgarden (suicide) and several others. It is no stretch to think that Reznor could have been another casualty.

Instead, Reznor somehow got clean. He started working out and is now muscular. He got married and had kids. He is still making music -- sometimes with NIN branding, but also Hollywood film soundtracks with creative partner Atticus Ross. He may have started out in a similar (although certainly not identical) place to Brian Wilson, but somewhat ironically Reznor appears to have had a much better life in the years since.

It is easy to say that schizoaffective disorder is more serious than self-loathing, and it may be correct. Paranoia and delusional thinking are real barriers to living life, and we still do not have very effective treatments for them. But let's not underestimate the toll of self-loathing. Lots of people (including me, arguably) have had their lives ruined permanently because of it.


This is a minor point, but I feel compelled to say it: Neither Brian Wilson nor Trent Reznor are great lyricists. Pet Sounds had great lyrics because Wilson was collaborating with a good lyricist (Tony Asher) for that album. Often Wilson's lyrics tend to the banal, such as Busy Doin' Nothing from Friends. Occasionally the banality is a strength (such as Til I Die from Surf's Up), and sometimes it is so silly it is interesting (such as the oddly compelling Johnny Carson from Love You) but often it falls flat.

I hate to agree with Mike Love, but I am not a fan of the Van Dyke Park lyrics on Smile at all. Surf's Up has a lovely melody, but even when I grasped what the lyrics were trying to say I did not appreciate them. Heroes and Villains is another dud, honestly.

Similarly, Reznor may be a musical genius but often his lyrics are mediocre. I don't think the criticisms of the infamous Pitchfork review were wrong, although I can appreciate the lyrics of The Fragile much more than I used to. The Downward Spiral had a lot of strong lyrics, as did some of the hits of Pretty Hate Machine. But a lot of Reznor's lyrical content is predictable. How many times does Reznor have to sing about being "on my knees", and how often does he have to rhyme that with "disease"?

Subsequent Work

Everything Brian Wilson produces will be compared to Pet Sounds and Smile, and nothing will ever measure up. But Wilson has produced some interesting stuff since then. Til I Die and This Whole World are some of my favourite Beach Boys songs, and I find myself listening to the weird synth-driven album Love You quite a bit. I do not really understand the subtleties of musical composition and why Brian Wilson is such a genius, so I am able to enjoy the simpler work that has good instrumentation, nice melody, and the gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies. I even find some of the Beach Boys work Brian had nothing to do with pretty good. I don't even hate Kokomo as much as I am supposed to.

Similarly, NIN has produced a fair amount of work after The Downward Spiral and The Fragile that I continue to enjoy. I like Hesitation Marks a lot, and listen to it frequently. Honestly I have not kept up with the band's latest work, and I have not listened to any of the acclaimed Hollywood soundtracks, but it is clear that the revived Nine Inch Nails still has an audience that appreciates its work. Nine Inch Nails will never produce The Downward Spiral again, and if that is the bar by which you measure the band or Trent Reznor you will forever be disappointed. But they are still producing things that are compelling, such as God Break Down the Door from Bad Witch and In Two from Hesitation Marks.


I guess this entry turned out to be much more about Smile and The Fragile as opposed to Brian and Trent. I would be willing to bet that a lot of the parallels I have highlighted are just false pattern matching, and that you could find interesting relationships between any two artists if you look hard enough. But even false pattern matching can be fun.

Unfortunately (but not unsurprisingly), this entry got much longer and more boring than I wanted. It could probably be summarized in a couple of hundred words:

There. Now you didn't need to read the article.