Review Summary: Trent releases yet another album. But where has Ghosts left the NIN sound?
Nine Inch Nails has had its up and downs over the years, with Trent’s record being a tad patchy to put it lightly. With every bit of brilliance, came something frustratingly generic – and most of Nails’ releases have contained both these traits in fairly equal measure. With Teeth, whilst it had some fantastic tracks, was mostly pop-tastic NIN-lite. It was Nine Inch Nails packaged, dressed with inviting slogans and crammed down the listeners throat with that dreaded tag of ‘a comeback’ biting at its heels. But even in that, his most commercially conscious release, glimmers of the artistry Trent was so desperate to be heard can still be found in the ethereal ‘Beside You In Time’ and the affecting ‘Right Where It Belongs’. The follow-up - Year Zero - pushed the pop format to its limits, trying to combine mainstream appeal with grinding techno backdrops– but whilst impressive, it was an uncomfortable album. Never techno enough to be a techno album, and too noisy to really be accepted as pop. It wasn’t until the recently released Ghosts that Nine Inch Nails had truly spread its wings as a project. Free from the restrictions of a record label, Trent Reznor released a boldly artistic double album of purely instrumental soundscapes. I wont mention the methods Trent Reznor chose to release it, as you probably already know, and to dwell on it is to detract from the albums importance musically, and not simply as an industry gimmick. There was a sense with Ghosts, with the sheer care and scope of the project, that it was the album Trent Reznor has been itching to make for a long time. So now he has made it, where does the story go from here?
The Slip is the answer. Released only a couple of months after Ghosts, I approached the album, as many surely did, with a slight sense of trepidation. After such a shift in gears with Ghosts, what would The Slip actually contain? The answer is perhaps one that should have been entirely expected. The Slip is a Nine Inch Nails album. It suffers from the same downfalls, and rides the same highs as previous releases, but coming after Ghosts the NIN formula is put into a somewhat different perspective. For instance, the album follows suit of many Nine Inch Nails releases, in that it is front-loaded with more abrasive, faster paced tracks, and as the album progresses the mood falls back into far more introspective territory. The difference here is that in many ways The Slip basks in the glory or Ghosts. For instance, if Ghosts had never existed, an instrumental soundscape like ‘Corona Radiata’ and its following beat driven instrumental ‘The Four of Us Are Dying’ would seem completely out of place in the tracklist. It severs the flow of the album, completely shifting its focus and splitting it into two halves. However with Ghosts’ shadow looming over The Slip, it suddenly all seems to make sense – with these two songs being the thread that link this album with its predecessor. As a result the two tracks are extremely effective - bathed in atmosphere and Trents now trademark pitch black mood – they stand up to anything on Ghosts.
Unfortunately, some tracks suffer from the progression found on that album. Tracks such as ‘1,000,000’ and ‘Letting You’ seem like a step backwards. What’s frustrating is that they are by no means bad songs, and do what NIN has always done with as much vigour and aggression as one has come to expect. ‘1,000,000’ provides the NIN audience with its pounding techno-march fix, and ‘Letting You’ is like its bigger, more violent brother, beating the eardrums with its earth shattering bass during the chorus. Despite this it all seems a bit… normal. No track can be more accused of this then the painfully by-numbers ‘Discipline’, a song that I mildly liked when I first heard it, but holds no nuances or depth to warrant any interest after a few more listens. It’s a shame, as after Ghosts I would have never expected Trent to pen something so generic.
Thankfully, its successor ‘Echoplex’ its absolutely superb, successfully striking the catchy-yet-interesting balance with lethal precision. It bounces along on a contagious rhythm, combined with a wonderfully melancholic bassline that makes the track. The jewel in The Slips’ crown, however, is the incredible ‘Lights In The Sky’. Again, true to the NIN formula it’s the expected ‘quiet ballad’ of the album, but it is stripped bare – with only piano and Trents distant voice for comfort – and as a result is utterly chilling, and to my mind the finest ballad in the Nine Inch Nails catalogue. Unfortunately ‘Head Down’ follows in suit of ‘1,000,000’ and ‘Letting You’ in the sense that it’s a perfectly good song, but it doesn’t do anything new or unexpected. And closer ‘Demon Seed’ suffers the same burden, except it also fractures the mood left by ‘The Four of Us Are Dying’ and therefore seems out of place being the final word.
So where has the story gone from Ghosts? Nowhere but backwards, really. And that’s precisely the problem with The Slip. On it’s own merits, it’s a great album, but it’s a great album in exactly the ways you expect it to be, and rarely differs from the set NIN formula. From its anger and its melancholy right down to its now frankly self parodying inward gazing lyrics – ‘I feel a million miles away/I don’t feel anything at all’ – it simply feels like Trent is taking a step back in the wake of Ghosts. And so it remains an album to recommend to fans of the band, but anyone who thought Ghosts was going to nudge this release in a more fresh direction will be left unsatisfied. When I delved into The Slip, I was unsure of what direction it was going to take, or what direction I wanted it to take for that matter. Listening to it, it often sounds as if Trent may have had a similar feeling writing it.