Review Summary: Something left in NIN? You better believe it.
For pretty much any band that made a big and/or decade-defining work in the 90s, one ‘down’ moment can shoot your career directly into the magical limbo of musical ‘afterwards’. There are many ways one can have one of these so-called ‘down’ moments: You can lose your edge (Marilyn Manson), release the right thing at the wrong time (The Smashing Pumpkins), you can plain fail to live up to the crushing expectations of releasing something great (Rage Against The Machine), or you can disappear into a spiral of drugs and violence, surfacing twice in a decade to release two frustratingly sub-par attempts at your prior glory (Nine Inch Nails).
The ‘afterwards’ limbo has a series of fairly predictable side-effects: Super-groups, solo albums, stupid press quotes, cameo appearances, amateur ‘remixes’, and even the most dreaded of coffin-nails: producing another (crappier) band. For Trent Reznor, though, these ideas don’t really seem to make much sense.
After ‘The Downward Spiral’ became a massive commercial epiphany for NIN, inevitable backlash set in and over the following 11 years Trent managed only 2 full-length albums, 2000s lukewarmly received ‘The Fragile’ and 2005s ‘With Teeth’. Despite containing all of Trent’s manifold talents, both albums felt suffocated and somewhat forced compared to the furious posturing of their previous releases.
Relative to these two releases, Year Zero paints a big sonic picture; One of a near-future dogged by caricatures of all Trent’s favourite demons, Organised religion, militaristic authority, manufactured drugs and human greed, straying dangerously close to the brink of utter annihilation. But rather than an introverted monologue or a series of vague recollections, Reznor paints his most lyrically diverse portrait yet, with different characters, viewpoints and delivery ideas playing into each piece. A ranting snipe at merciless authoritarians comes off with equal parts bile and humour on ‘Capital G’, a junkie heaves through his woes on ‘Vessel’, and a mysterious voice on the other end of the line sings clear and calm instructions before a massive, noisy break takes over ‘The Great Destroyer’.
Its not all character play, however. ‘My Violent Heart’ is a straight-out proletariat dissent anthem, ‘In This Twilight’ is an anonymous requiem to humanity, for all its values, and ‘Another Version Of The Truth’ and ‘The Greater Good’ showcase Trent’s penchant for saying as much with music as he does with words, A pair of shadowy, tense musical landscapes of a fallen utopia and the twilight days of humanity.
Trent has always maintained a close relationship with contemporary sound and technique, and here he takes frameworks reminiscent of some of the best electronica today (Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, and Timbaland for example) and making them his own. He gasps and whispers across sinister, industrialised dub on ‘Me, I’m Not’ and takes on a Justin Timberlake style pause momentarily before disengaging back into his trademark anguished yelp on ‘God Given’. It’s a fascinating enigma: is he referencing these sounds consciously just to slyly prove that he can still program rings around the competition" Or is he just taking what works these days and running with it"
Its worth noting though: Year Zero is real noisy. Cut-up, supercompressed guitar slices throughout the album, and the hook from ‘My Violent Heart’ is pure militaristic squeal. Dissonant hums work to great effect throughout first single ‘Survivalism’, constantly holding together a powerful atmosphere of chaos, desperation, apathy and overwhelming, inevitable, impending doom – all tied together in what could be repackaged as perfectly radio-ready pop.
As in the past, the real highlights of the album come through when Trent bends his chosen method of unpleasant sound into a natural harmony with his soft sensibilities. On the closer, ‘Zero Sum’, fuzzy dustbin drums jitter over pianos and a bitterly crooned chorus as humanity watches its final days: “shame on us … doomed from the start … may god have mercy on our dirty little hearts … shame on us … for all we have done… and all we ever were … just zeros and ones” The more things change for Trent, it appears, the more they stay the same: he’s still not a huge fan of humanity.
Almost two decades since Trent Reznor started writing pop songs with a keyboard and a drum machine, a lot has changed, both in the world of music and in the world of Nine Inch Nails. But while this time last year, their future looked unsure, this album is, at worst, a reassurance that there is still something left in this band. At best, however, it is their best album since ‘The Downward Spiral’, a visionary and heady package of contemporary and important pop music, and a very strong piece of evidence that Trent Reznor is going to become a career musician of potentially David Bowie calibre for many years to come.
If that is the case, I look forward to the near-future, even at the risk of a totalitarian society bordering on Armageddon.