The Evolution of Hurt, From NIN to Johnny Cash

The Evolution of Hurt, From NIN to Johnny Cash

Hurt is one of those songs that most people have either never heard or can’t live without.


It’s about pain. And it’s incredibly cathartic.

But how does a song make its way from an underground industrial band to one of the best-known country singers of all time?

Let’s find out!

Who Originally Wrote and Recorded Hurt?

Hurt was written and recorded by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in 1994. It was the last song on The Downward Spiral, the second studio album released by the band.

Trent Reznor formed Nine Inch Nails in 1988. Reznor, a Philadelphia native, played music since the age of twelve. He was that guy in high school constantly asking you to check out his band. But his band was just him and a keyboard. 

In 1987 Reznor graduated college, moved to Ohio, and began recording his demos. Inspired by Prince, he played every instrument used except for drums.

Nine Inch Nails released their first album, Pretty Hate Machine, in 1989. Reznor impressed multiple record labels who offered to produce the album. Reznor ended up going with TVT records, a decision he would regret. Upon first listening to the album, his producer called Pretty Hate Machine an abortion. Reznor immediately wanted out from under their contract.

Pretty Hate Machine marked the beginning of popular industrial rock in America, and the rock kids crowned Reznor as King. He broke free from his contract with TVT, thanks to Interscope Records, and followed up with an EP called Broken. 

This feud with TVT was a sign of things to come. Reznor hated the music industry and felt squeamish in the limelight. He gave 500% on stage, drawing in more hardcore fans every time he played out. Although Reznor still wrote and recorded most of the musical arrangements and sang, he began to tour with several repeat band members.

The Downward Spiral

By the time Trent Reznor wrote his second album, The Downward Spiral, he had a running theme for the record: self-destruction. Reznor grew up in an average, relatively stable family setting. Sure, divorce happened. But he’s the first to say that his anger and intense music come more from the feeling of being an outsider than anything else.

Reznor wrote The Downward Spiral as a projection, a story about someone else. Many music journalists claim that the album is an autobiographical purge. But Reznor repeatedly states that he was in a relatively good place when he wrote Hurt and every other song on the record. 

He didn’t expect it to be a foreshadowing of his future trouble with drugs and alcohol.

The success of The Downward Spiral, coupled with two years of an immensely dense tour schedule, pushed Nine Inch Nails into the mainstream. Reznor didn’t cope well with success.

He suffered greatly from depression and was in and out of rehab until 2001.

Luckily, Trent Reznor is thriving, and Nine Inch Nails continues touring to this day. Reznor produced 12 albums with NIN and became a sought-after soundtrack composer. He married Mariqueen Maandig in 2009 and has five children.

Why Did Trent Reznor Create Hurt?

Trent Reznor is notorious for refusing to reveal his trade secrets. He believes the power of a song rests in your personal interpretation. 

On the other hand, Reznor said that the inspiration behind the entire album, The Downward Spiral, was mapped out. He built a timeline for his protagonist, a person trying to find salvation through sex, drugs, and self-destruction.

Musically, Hurt’s function on the album is that of a coda. A coda is a musical passage that brings an entire work to an end. It can take the shape of a sort of return to what came before or a tiny afterthought. Reznor initially penned the piece with this concept in mind.

That said, the lyrics are pretty self-explanatory. The words describe someone so numb from their personal pitfalls that all they have left is pain. They choose to focus on the hurt when perhaps there is a better way. 

The musical arrangement is both detailed and atmospheric. It starts with a David Lynchian-like hum in the background, builds to an intense crescendo, then falls steeply back into the abyss.

How is the Song Connected with David Bowie?

Like many singers of his generation, Reznor idolized David Bowie. As a young, brooding songwriter, Reznor wished he had a voice as beautiful as Bowie’s. How does Bowie write such incredible songs? Does he own one thread of clothing that’s uncool? Is he even of this earth?

These are questions millions of aspiring musicians contemplate often.

When Reznor was recording the vocals for Hurt, he purposefully pulled back on his delivery. In Song Exploder’s documentary interview, Reznor describes his frustration with each take. He recalls wishing, specifically, that he could sing like Bowie and that he was writing Hurt with Bowie’s voice in mind.

Since he felt so far away from that wish, he retracted more deeply into the song. He wanted to hide in it, to remain somewhat unseen. So he sang some parts extremely quietly.

Reznor also cited David Bowie’s 1977 Album, Low, as pivotal to his inspiration in writing The Downward Spiral album.

Reznor had no idea that his dream could come true in a better way than he first imagined. He had no idea that Bowie had started to take note of him. Nine Inch Nails toured heavily for The Downward Spiral beginning in 1994. In 1995, Bowie invited Nine Inch Nails to open for him during the Outside tour.

On each night of the Outside Tour, the performance of Nine Inch Nails would flow right into David Bowie’s set. They would perform three Bowie Songs together, then two Nine Inch Nails songs. 

The first was Reptile, and the second was Hurt. Trent Reznor performed a duet version of Hurt with Bowie for two months in 1995. A mind-blowing experience Reznor will never forget.

Before researching this article, there were only two versions of Hurt. The original, written by Nine Inch Nails, and the cover performed by Johnny Cash. Period. At least, in our humble opinions. After doing the research, there are still only two versions.

Before we get into Cash’s cover of Hurt, though, we’ll highlight a couple of great contenders.

Leona Lewis is a British singer and actress who received a recording contract after performing on The X Factor. Her version of Hurt appeared on her 2011 EP by the same name. Although the single had mixed reviews, we think it’s a strong piece. The song starts soft and quiet before building into a well-crafted crescendo.

The next cover worth mentioning is by Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom. She released her version on the 2013 compilation called The Covers Collection. Thom’s rendition simply captures the essence of the song with acoustic guitar and just a touch of backing instrumentation. 

Her voice delivers with a balance of emotion and reflection. The piece ends with her subtle and slightly altered guitar arrangement.

Beyond these two covers, you’ll find loads of live recordings that are fine. But let’s get to The Man In Black.

Johnny Cash’s Hurt

Hurt feels like a song only Trent Reznor could wrangle into this world. And only Johnny Cash could calm it down and put it in place for all.

Cash’s story is too big and beautiful for this article. Briefly, he’s a prolific outlaw country singer best known for his 1957 hit I Walk The Line. He was arrested for petty crimes and played live for prisoners. His marriage to country singer June Carter was the basis for a hit Hollywood film. He released over 70 albums during his 73 years on earth.

Johnny Cash’s peak years were in the late 50s and 60s. In the early 90s, his record label dropped him. But a legion of artists coming into their own kept his influence alive. Producer Rick Ruben noted this wave of honor by bands like U2. 

Ruben produced four studio albums with Cash from 1994 to 2002. Each contained a mix of original songs written by Cash with covers suggested by Ruben. American IV: The Man Comes Around was Cash’s last album before his death in 2003. 

Cash was suffering from autonomic neuropathy when he agreed to cover Hurt. His wavering voice makes the delivery all the more impactful.

At first, Trent Reznor wasn’t thrilled with the cover because the song was so personal. He felt as if his muse was on a date with someone else. But after seeing Cash’s video, Reznor changed his tune. He felt the power in Cash’s humble delivery. Both versions ache with pure lament but in entirely different ways.

American IV has been certified Platinum. The Hurt music video won Best Cinematography in the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards.

Cash’s moving cover truly immortalized the song. We recommend playing Cash’s cover right after Reznor’s original, then listening to both again. It’s a trip.

The Evolution of Hurt 

Hurt by Nine Inch Nails is a crushingly beautiful song. It came into this world through the sound and vision of Trent Reznor in 1994. And in some ways, it continues to evolve. We don’t think any cover could ever match that done by Johnny Cash. But who knows. Time will certainly tell!

What are your thoughts? Do you think we could see another great version of Hurt?

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