Nine Inch Nails - La Mer
The first time I strongly associated the sea with New Orleans, Trent Reznor’s home during the writing of The Fragile (1999), came through reading The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin. While “La Mer” and the classic novel certainly both use Creole French at the surface, The Awakening's end and Reznor's mindset at the time share a much greater, darker focus: committing suicide at sea.
Chopin eloquently narrates the struggle between a New Orleans woman fighting for greater independence and the conservative culture of nineteenth-century Louisiana. Sadly, this societal resistance ultimately crushes her ambitions as an early feminist, fuelling her depression to the point of suicide. The final scene memorably depicts her slow, steady waltz into the sea.
So too is “La Mer” both delicate yet haunting. The initial piano hook imitates a peaceful tide flowing in and out before pounding drums, bass and electronic distortion cannibalize the melody. It makes sense that the song came to be in a house Reznor was renting by the ocean. However, as he revealed onstage in 2009, the seaside escape to Big Sur, California was less to inspire the first writing session of The Fragile and more for an idealized suicide during his own battle with depression.
Reznor’s use of contrast extends lyrically as well. The calm Creole French whispers of guest vocalist Denise Milfort, Reznor’s then-girlfriend in New Orleans, are betrayed by the embrace of death apparent in Reznor’s native tongue:
"Et la mer avait embrassé moi / And the sea has embraced me
Et la délivré moi de ma caille / And it has dispensed me from my cell
Rien ne peut m’arrêter maintenant / Nothing can stop me now”
Just as the sonic chaos swells to a peak, the calm piano intro reclaims the song for a peaceful conclusion. Likewise, during that same performance of “La Mer” in 2009, Reznor stated his plans to reclaim the seaside house: “It’s weird to think how different things are now. I’m afraid to go back to that place because it feels kinda haunted to me, but I needed that. I’m getting married there.”
— Jill Krajewski (Jill previously wrote for us about U2 in the 90s and Nine Inch Nails.)