The 34-year gap between the events of the original Watchmen comic and the events of HBO’s new series leaves a lot of history to fill in. While the show takes care of some of the bigger points, creator Damon Lindelof and his team have been carefully filling in the blanks with things like its weekly news drops that explain all the ways the show’s world is different from our own. The latest of these extra-textual materials is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ first Watchmen soundtrack vinyl, which comes with liners notes filled with “historical” context.
As you might be able to guess, the focus of the liner notes are mostly on music, and the way the Interspatial Toxic Event (ITE) — Veidt’s fake squid attack — changed the scene. The album itself is presented as a reissue of a controversial in-universe album called The Book of Rorschach by a band called Sons of Pale Horse, named after the band Pale Horse from the original comic. The liner notes are an essay on the history of the album on its 15th anniversary.
The notes start out describing the childhood of Chris Deschaines, one of the members of Sons of Pale Horse. Growing up in the post-ITE era, Deschaines’ father, who had been part of a Dr. Manhattan-centric cult in the ’60s, was crushed by Dr. Manhattan’s departure from Earth, and the death of Chris’ mother just a few years later. Deschaines evidently found solace from his home life in music from bands like Jane’s Addiction, which apparently still exists in the Watchmen-verse, and The Nine Inch Nails.
Of course, in our own world the band’s name Nine Inch Nails, and the pair that make up part of its current incarnation, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, actually composed the music behind the Watchmen TV show’s soundtrack — the actual music that accompanies the liner notes. “The Nine Inch Nails,” is the same name the band used for its in-universe appearance in Twin Peaks: The Return, which opens a whole can of worms.
Sons of Pale Horse’s first album was originally released in 2000, the notes explain, and regarded as a travesty by mainstream critics, who complained that it full of “regressive edginess.” But the record sold like gangbusters, with 4 million units sold before the band shut down production because they felt it was misunderstood. This in-universe reissue is being handled by Charlton as part of the company’s “Cancel Culture Classics” series.
The Book of Rorschach record seemed to regard the masked vigilante as a cult hero and became a rallying cry for the fanatics who already believed it. According to the in-universe Nova Express the album romanticized, “lone nut archetypes, enlightened madmen cliches, and a manifold of toxic pathologies.”
None of this was helped by a particularly positive profile of one of the band members in a publication called Gamegate. While the liner notes don’t detail anything about the website, it certainly seems like a nod to GamerGate.
But, the notes insist, this wasn’t the intention of its creators. When they showed up for their first, and only, concert for the album the crowd was mostly, “dude bros in Rorschach masks looking to mosh each other bloody,” according to one band member. So the band walked off stage and never came back. The band wanted to poke fun at the idea of Rorschach but wound up valorizing him instead.
“I admire risky, uncomfortable art,” one band member said. “We just weren’t very good at it.”
Beyond a story of a misunderstood album, these liner notes fill in a little bit more of the Watchmen universe. The TV show has made it clear where the Seventh Kavalry came from and how it returned, but the liner notes make it clear that this isn’t new. The fascination with Rorschach and his particular brand of racism and hard line cruelty was something bubbling under the surface for years after the ITE. And, just like in our world, those feelings manifested themselves everywhere, including in pop culture.