“I don’t know if the stuff he makes is for me. I don’t think it’s supposed to be for me. I think it’s for somebody else, and for somebody else it’s a lifeline. It’s not my lifeline, [but] I think it’s lifeline music. That kind of heavy just goes by me. I just don’t quite get it. But he’s an interesting character, and I don’t ever discount him.” ~James Murphy on Trent Reznor, Pitchforkmedia.com, May 2005
“I thought Nine Inch Nails was a bloated, stupid thing that had become a parody of itself.” ~Trent Reznor, CMJ New Music Monthly, October 1997
Nine Inch Nails saved my life once. College, winter of freshman year, dorm room, failed test, blah blah et cetera. The details are trite and predictable, and I don’t care enough to bring it all up again. It’s the kind of thing that’s been happening to freshmen ever since college became this disenchanted, Less Than Zero-birthing rite of passage — since the ’80s, I guess. I needed to connect to something that felt as awful as I did, and NIN’s Downward Spiral, with its doubts and false hopes and rejected misery, was familiar and immediate and perfect.
There are many others like me, kids who grew up in suffocating towns (or entire states) and more or less got their asses kicked by college, because the endless possibilities of college can do that to people like us. Nine Inch Nails makes a lot of sense during this time; it makes even more sense in high school. And along the way, Trent Reznor — sleek, calculated Trent Reznor — becomes this untouchable figurehead who’s never wrong, whose every work is examined for meaning and layers, whose taste is impeccable, whose upbringing and private life beg to be unearthed and devoured. We want every piece of him; our hunger for detail cannot be satisfied.
There are few like him. Who else making music around the time of Pretty Hate Machine and Broken — that is, the early ’90s — can still claim a shred of relevance? A diverse group of timeless songwriters (Springsteen, Tom Waits, Prince, Scarface) and a few dinosaur rock acts (Metallica, Sonic Youth, U2), maybe. The closest parallel might be Massive Attack; like that group’s core members, Reznor emerges and disappears and re-emerges every four or five years to release a tightly controlled art-pop document whose production values are superb and fingerprinted and not-so-easily imitated.
And that’s what makes Year Zero such an exciting anomaly. It follows its predecessor by less than two years but is only the fifth full-length Nine Inch Nails has ever made. (In contrast, 2005’s With Teeth came nearly six years after The Fragile, which came more than five years after The Downward Spiral.) As a result, it’s looser and less self-conscious and much more engaging, despite a marketed storyline about a totalitarian government set in the future that’s not only overdone but also is genuinely confusing. Instead of trying to push the boundaries of new sounds, he’s using the few he finds most pleasing and/or accessible and works within their parameters.
And that’s what makes Year Zero frustrating. If, as has been said, The Fragile was an overproduced, self-parodying mess, With Teeth proved that Reznor could exercise restraint, that he could boil down some of the studio-generated heaviness and churn out something resembling the pop record he’s always wanted to make (and did make with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, his very first album). Year Zero takes that idea one step further — or, rather, behind. It scales back to almost nothingness, relying on minimalist structures that go mostly untouched (i.e., no white-noise crescendos, guitar squalls, ambient sound bits, et al). Opener “Hyperpower!,” a marching, cacophonous instrumental, is a brief and rare moment of lashing out: Barring its chorus blasts, Year Zero stays enjoyably subdued, building a great sense of detachment and sterility by playing with some of the emptiness between beat-kicks. Or, put better, not playing with it at all.
The tracks rely too much, however, on an obnoxious percussion scorch — a ravenous, antiquated drum-machine punch, like an 808, that feels like it’s eating away at everything else. It’s big and dumb and everywhere, and like the cymbal crashes that marked Metallica’s St. Anger, its arrival quickly becomes unwelcome. Punctured by relentless keyboard darts — like in “The Great Destroyer,” which eventually, and purposely, flails out of control with the crap — and the production can border on nightmarishly repetitive.
Then again, what would this whole thing be if not basic? The name of this song-and-dance is Year Zero, after all, a title that defines starting over. And Reznor, more than a few times, makes the most of it, finding hip-hop rhythms in “The Good Soldier” and “The Greater Good” and delivering an almost rap cadence in “Me, I’m Not,” “Capital G,” and “God Given.” In “The Beginning of the End,” probably Zero‘s best song, it’s as simple as giving in to a straightforward rock groove, something so easy and right it’s hard to believe there hasn’t been a whole album’s worth of it yet.
But the lyrics, the song-craft. Applaud Reznor for attempting something that doesn’t read like school graffiti; shake your little fist at him for doing it anyway. The man has an incredible gift for melody — here, it’s displayed beautifully through “In This Twilight” and “Zero Sum,” the album’s final songs — but he hasn’t changed much since we first met him railing against a catch-all god named money in “Head Like a Hole.” He’s deep all right, but where’s the growth? It’s still eerie whispers and shout-out-loud refrains, words that fit and achieve a purpose but don’t mean much else, not unless you’re too young to not want more or even know there’s more to want. But we’ve learned to adjust to that. It’s part of our growing up; why we still listen and maybe always will. Trent Reznor can make you feel like a kid again, and I suppose that’s the point.
Album stream: http://yearzero.nin.com/