Nine Inch Nails - _Year Zero_
(Interscope, 2007)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (9.5 out of 10)
I briefly considered rifling through copies of classic dystopian novels such as "1984" or "Concrete Island" (always hated "Brave New World") in order to, you know, show just how one-dimensional and mono-partisan Trent Reznor's latest vision came across in lieu of the masters; but is anyone really expecting a sweeping lyrical achievement based on global hot topics from the guy in this day and age? Reznor's lyrics have always been at their best when they were most self-lacerating, and at their worst when he was blaming other people for his problems -- which, as of about 1996, was most of the time. So I abandoned the idea of leading in with a brilliant quote, which is kind of a trite and quotidian way to make your point anyway -- not least of which because it would have required me to follow up on the analogy by digging deeper into Trent's lyrical spleen than the cursory overviews which we've all heard plenty about by now (and which probably reveal as much about the fake-movie "plot" as anyone really needs to know in the first place). Instead I thought I'd confine my focus to _Year Zero_'s real strength: the best set of actual -tunes- from Nine Inch Nails since all the way back to _Pretty Hate Machine_.

Yep, after a lackluster, almost obligatory "comeback" with 2005's _With Teeth_ (a hysterically off-base album title if there ever was one), Trent has dipped into his (Pro) Tool-box and retreated even further back than his master stroke, 1994's _The Downward Spiral_, which would have been the most obvious benchmark to regroup from. Hats off to Trent for eschewing the predictable, which he frankly owes us after... shit, what was that album again? Oh yeah. _With Teeth_.

In spite of the T-Man's red herring namedropping of the Bomb Squad in recent interviews (raise your hand if you took the bait), there is a distinct lack of even a marginal hip hop influence on this record. That is, unless you want to count the tenuous common ancestry between hip hop's early sidebar genre electro and the more obvious influences on _Year Zero_, which would be late '80s / early '90s EBM (the lion's share) and to a slightly lesser extent post-rave, pre-big beat techno (Prodigy, FSOL, etc.).

In truth, _Year Zero_ is even more directly in tune with the classic days of Wax Trax industrial dance than even NIN's classic debut, and in spite of _Pretty Hate Machine_'s breathtaking song craft, the recording climate of the day demanded a soundscape consisting of dissonance far more trebly and reed-like than the bottom-heavy kick of this new, updated filth. If Reznor has been influenced by any aspect of rap at all, it's in that he's really brought the bass this time around.

"The Great Destroyer" may actually have lyrics -- it does, and they're more or less irrelevant / irreverent -- but what reaches out and smacks you in the fucking head while you're trying to pay attention to something else, some chick in a tight skirt or the oven you probably left on after an abortive suicide attempt or whatever, is the crackling squiggles of bass-punctuated acid roiling like an overdriven deep fryer beneath the uncomfortably emo-progness of the vapid lyrics. Backing up a bit, there is nothing extant in the NIN catalog more epic than the brief instrumental which opens the album, "Hyperpower". A martial pep rally cum "Matrix"-era rave anthem, it sets the high bar for songs like follow up "The Beginning of the End" (if that isn't the twelfth NIN song with that title, it might as well be).

Neither the lingering air raid siren masked amongst the background noises nor the Ministry homage of the backbeat make for as logical a continuation as track 3, "Survivalism", would have. "Survivalism" is easily the album's centerpiece, and probably the best marriage of accessible melody and furious synth programming Reznor has even bothered to attempt since the dual axis of the _Broken_ and _Fixed_ EPs. Hands down one of the top entries in the man's bloated-with-riches catalog.

Speaking of EPs, the last three tracks on _Year Zero_ are essentially well-meaning filler that would have been interesting while padding out the length of a single or a rarities anthology, but seem a quizzical way to close out a heavy concept record -- especially considering only one of them contains any lyrics, and even those are barely discernible through a narcotic haze of clipped beats and self-destruct synth fuzz. Well before we've gotten that far, though, we're treated to nostalgia-invoking staggered beats and wobbling basslines in throwback standards like "God Given" and "Vessel", both of which feature vocal patterns lifted wholesale from _Pretty Hate Machine_. This is a good thing.

In fact, the success of _Year Zero_ largely hinges around one principle: sure, Trent still sounds pissed off in a driven-to-the-brink bratty kind of way, but this is the first time in years he's sounded like he's actually having fun with it. Back in the days of yore, when the (well-deserved) critical praise heaped upon _The Downward Spiral_ gave him plenty of rope to hang himself with, Trent started second guessing his own instincts and apparently developed a guilt complex vis a vis singing about such brazenly stark topics with the kind of hellfire vigor he made his bones with. Enter the Trent who thenceforth staggered back and forth punch drunk between the swells of pity party melodrama and knee-jerk angst, neither angle eliciting the same sense of musical contagion that we had previously allowed to willingly infect our central nervous systems. _Year Zero_ is an apt title for that very reason, in spite of whatever other pretentious muse may have inspired it: this is a fresh start for Nine Inch Nails, and it's just as promising as those early singles in the slimline jewel cases. Frankly, Trent can conjure up as many dubious imaginary movies as he likes, provided the soundtracks are this exciting.


(article published 25/4/2007)

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