Flirting With Dystopia, Experimenting With Noise

By Kelefa Sanneh for The New York Times on April 17, 2007

Miniature hard drives stashed in bathrooms. Unlisted phone numbers that lead to ominous messages. A small constellation of mysterious Web sites chronicling a grim future 15 years away. This is how Trent Reznor is letting the world — or some fanatical portion thereof — know about “Year Zero” (Nothing Records/Interscope), the new Nine Inch Nails album, which arrives in shops today. Open the packaging and you’ll find another secret message: the disc itself changes color with heat, turning white to display the copyright information and a long string of ones and zeroes. In this paranoid world, everything worth knowing is a secret.

Mr. Reznor has been making aggressive computer music under the name Nine Inch Nails for about two decades, but it was “The Downward Spiral,” his bilious but elegant 1994 blockbuster, that confirmed his position as a true rock star in an era largely devoid of them. He released a colder-blooded double album, “The Fragile,” in 1999, then laid low for half a decade. His seething 2005 CD, “With Teeth,” felt like a comeback, a reminder to his fans — and maybe to himself — that he hadn’t retired after all.

Apparently the follow-up came quickly: Mr. Reznor has said the new album “began as an experiment with noise on a laptop in a bus on tour somewhere.” (A sticker on the cover bears a promise, or a warning: “16 noisy new songs.”) But “Year Zero” is much more seductive than “With Teeth,” partly because of all the so-called noise. Hard beats are softened with distortion, static cushions the tantrums, sneaky bass lines float beneath the surface. And as usual the music is packed with details: “Meet Your Master” goes through at least three cycles of decay and rebirth; part of the fun of “The Warning” is tracking the ever-mutating timbres.

If all these sounds often distract listeners from Mr. Reznor’s lyrics, well, so much the better. In the year 2022, apparently, clumsy sloganeering is all the rage. The album’s first single, “Survivalism,” includes the phrase “Mother Nature is a whore,” a sarcastic expression of anti-environmentalism. And “Capital G,” which sounds a lot like an anti-Bush diatribe, has another deluded narrator we’re supposed to hate: “I pushed a button and elected him to office and a/He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb.”

Some will enjoy finding connections between these songs and the narrative that unfolds on the cryptic “Year Zero” Web sites; fans have had to figure out the URL addresses on their own. (“Another Version of the Truth” is an instrumental track; anotherversionofthetruth.com is one of the sites.) But even listeners who don’t know their Parepin (a sinister panacea of the future) from their Opal (an illegal drug of the future) may find that this fictional world serves a useful purpose.

It’s a pretty neat trick: just knowing there’s a hidden story makes those generically disaffected words sound less generic. If the songs share the same sonic palette, and if the lyrics sometimes overlap (“Down on your knees” in one song, “On hands and knees we crawl” in another; “Can it go any faster?” in one, “Make it come faster” in another), that’s because they are all artifacts of the same fictional world.

Hidden messages, hidden Web sites, a hidden world: all this secrecy is supposed to tell us something ominous about the future. So why does Mr. Reznor’s dystopia seem so familiar? His paranoid vision evokes nothing so much as the 1990s, the decade that gave us Heaven’s Gate suicides, the militia movement, the first President Bush’s New World Order, the Y2K scare, “The X-Files.” It’s hard to spend much time in Mr. Reznor’s world without thinking of that show’s famous slogan: “The truth is out there.”

In the 1990s, when online culture was young, it was tempting to believe that the Internet was full of secret sites and furtive e-mail messages and clandestine information; back then all those mysterious “Year Zero” Web sites might have seemed pretty spooky. Nowadays everyone knows that the Internet is a spectacularly bad place to store secrets, and e-mail is even worse; it keeps getting harder to make information disappear.

Last week Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, inadvertently summed up our archive- obsessed culture when he scoffed at a claim that sensitive White House e-mail messages had been lost: “You can’t erase e-mails, not today. They’ve gone through too many servers!” The truth isn’t out there, it’s right there: on Google or YouTube or Wikipedia. People used to worry that the world was full of secrets; now it’s possible to wonder whether there are any secrets left.

Certainly the secrets of “Year Zero” didn’t stay that way very long. Nine Inch Nails fans who lack the time or inclination to puzzle out the story can simply look it up: a few minutes on Wikipedia will answer all your questions. (The game continues. On Friday “Year Zero” obsessives were summoned by e-mail to a secret meeting on a Los Angeles street corner.) But again, solving the riddle isn’t really the point. Although it claims to be an ominous portrait of a fictional future, “Year Zero” seems more like an affectionate tribute to our recent past.

Surely it’s not a coincidence that the 1990s were the heyday of Nine Inch Nails, the decade when Mr. Reznor went from cult hero to mainstream rock star. And perhaps he misses his days as an underground favorite. (Now that just about any kind of music is, literally, accessible, it’s no longer clear what “underground” means.) Even the electronic noises on “Year Zero” sound a bit old-fashioned: a throwback to the days when computer-generated music was full of static and blips. If “Year Zero” feels warm and, for better and worse, familiar, this is why. It’s not really a cautionary tale: it’s a reminiscence.

Transcribed by Lt. Randazzo

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