Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero

By Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork Media on April 17, 2007

For all his nihilistic tantrums, Trent Reznor always wanted to be loved by as many people as possible. After the multi-platinum bloodletting The Downward Spiral exploded in 1994, the depressive frontman froze, stuck in a drug-addled mindfuck of heightened expectations. And while he took eons deciding whether he wanted to be the next "voice of a generation," a fickle pop zeitgeist passed Nine Inch Nails by. Ten years and just one (insular, commercially toxic) album later, 2005's With Teeth had Reznor turning familiar tricks while desperately groping for the mass adulation of old. But, even by regressive NIN standards, the album was too lock-step, causing die-hards to question their favorite troubled teen trapped inside a 40-year-old brute's body. "A lot of what I've done as Nine Inch Nails has been governed by fear," admitted the singer two years ago, and With Teeth sounded like the product of a man paralyzed by his looming cultural expiration date.

But something clicked while Reznor & co. toured the world over the past couple of years-- he learned to stop worrying about MTV and love the cult. When I saw the band on Long Island last summer, they were riveting, raged, and refreshed. Brutally aggressive yet artfully dramatic, the performance was anything but staid; it got me genuinely excited about NIN for the first time in ages. And apparently, the tour got Reznor amped too. A mere two years after his latest full-length (a mere blip on the NIN timeline) comes Year Zero, a disquieting apocalyptic vision largely recorded on the road. The songs still deal with Reznor's tried-and-true topics-- including the destructive powers of addiction, religion, and authority-- but the record's framework is new. Instead of just chronicling his own fatalistic tendencies, this time Reznor is taking on the entire world's hastening downward spiral.

It's not the most original dystopian yarn. An amalgam of ideas taken from no-future tales like 1984, The Matrix, and The Wall, Year Zero takes place on a scorched earth 15 years from today: The war on terror has escalated into a full-blown fanatical religious struggle, the American people are sedated by government-sanctioned drugs with names like Parepin and Opal, and a violent underground resistance movement is trying to usurp the totalitarian U.S. regime. It's a perfect shitstorm for Reznor to do what he does best: depict ceaseless brutality with the tactless force of a bunker buster.

But instead of leaving it up to the listener to fill in the nameless pronouns and vague themes within Year Zero, he's hired Alternate Reality Game experts to help him concoct a sprawling hypertext scavenger hunt aimed squarely at obsessives. The online game's unabashed intricacies reiterate Reznor's new appreciation for his smaller, devout fanbase: There's no way a casual fan can could hope to keep track of the myriad hidden websites, endless message board speculation, and spectrograph analysis (seriously) required to crack Year Zero's expanded storyboard. Thankfully, none of that knowledge is necessary to enjoy the album's combustible backdrops.

Low on anthemic hooks and heavy on riotous noise breaks, Year Zero finds Reznor waving his digital hardcore flag high. Instead of wallowing in monotonous refrains as he did on With Teeth and parts of The Fragile, Reznor offers Bomb Squad-meets-Merzbow sonic blasts on tracks like "Vessel", "My Violent Heart", and especially the apocalypse-now back-end of "The Great Destroyer"; these fuzz buckets double as yellow caution tape for all "Hurt"-loving passerbys. The album's ever-mutating drums and off-kilter arrangements show this plug-in wonk is still a master programmer. Then there are the words, which remain somewhat less than masterful. But, for every repetitive mention of "down on your knees" submission and corrosive godheads (there are many), Year Zero squeezes out some intriguing ambiguities.

Though it's clear Reznor favors the anti-establishment warriors in his invented battle-earth, he offers multiple sides to the story-- and even some shades of gray between good and evil. There's the torn military man at the center of "The Good Soldier" who's trying to believe his actions are just ("God is on my side/ I keep telling myself"), the apathetic bystander who only asks "can we stop?" when it's too late on "Me, I'm Not", and voices representing god-complex propaganda from both government ("The Greater Good") and anti-government ("My Violent Heart") players. The set-up hides Reznor behind his characters to an extent, but lines like, "Don't try to tell me how some power can corrupt a person/ You haven't had enough to know what it's like," from the broad anti-Bush swipe "Capital G", could also describe the deadening corruption he himself faced by-way-of fame and drugs once upon a time.

In 1996, Reznor told Spin, "The idea of politics is just so uninteresting to me-- I don't believe things can really change. It doesn't matter who's president." Now more mature and sober, he's finally aware of the world around him-- and, not surprisingly, he's not too pleased. While Year Zero gets bogged down in stock themes, 2-D imagery, and the occasional too-long come-down, its cult-ready appeal is pure. The fan-artist communion reaches a peak on the post-doomsday finale, "Zero-Sum", a welcome addition to the lofty tradition of NIN album-closing ballads. "And I guess I just wanted to tell you," says Reznor in a conspiratorial whisper, "As the light starts to fade/ That you are the reason/ That I am not afraid." It's the end of the world as he knows it, and he feels (relatively) fine.

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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