On 'Zero,' youthful angst meets musical maturity

By Peter Suderman for The Washington Times on April 17, 2007

What to make of Trent Reznor?

Since the release of "Pretty Hate Machine" in 1989, Mr. Reznor, the frontman and creative force behind the gloomy techno-rock outfit Nine Inch Nails, has raised hell with parents by serving as an icon to sullen teenagers whose taste in clothes runs to black, black and more black.

With his virulent, profanity-laced tirades against Christianity, suburban conformity and whatever else irritates teen outcasts at any given moment, he has become an established voice of rage for the juvenile and surly, teaching a new generation of rebels how to be "different" (just like all the other "different" youths).

Now he's back again with "Year Zero," another foray into angst and attitude, flipping off and showing off with Bush bashing and religion trashing. It ought to be easy to dismiss Mr. Reznor as no more than another grumbling rocker cashing in on the perpetual disaffection of youth -- except that he also happens to be one of the most uniquely talented musicians in mainstream music.

With Nine Inch Nails, he distills techno, heavy metal, dance, ambient, new wave and radio-friendly rock into freaky-yet-catchy pop anthems. His deeply woven, deeply warped sonic collages are some of the most adventurous and compositionally complex in mainstream music. Only top-tier hip-hop producers such as Timbaland come close (and Timbaland has cited Mr. Reznor as one of his favorite contemporaries).

On "Year Zero," it's all there: the dance beats overlaid with minimalist electronic blips and punctuated with outbursts of heavy guitar riffs; the skewed but unforgettable melodies; the crashing waves of computer-generated sound. Mixing and mashing genres and influences with deft fluidity, Mr. Reznor conjures up a blistering futuristic soundscape that resembles what you would expect from pop music sent back from a science-fiction future, all infused with his characteristic outsider attitude.

Mr. Reznor is more than an unhinged rage-monger; he also has a deep paranoid streak. His biggest hit, "Closer," gathered much of its power from its repressive intensity -- it's as much about fear as anger. Many of the songs on "Year Zero," -- "Me I'm Not," "Zero Sum," and "In This Twilight" -- have a similar bottled-up feeling, as if Mr. Reznor is cowering in some darkened corner. Even punchier tracks, such as "God Given," give off a manic, half-crazed sense that adds a disturbing undertone to his elegantly skewed compositions.

Unfortunately, his lyrics are still stuck in high school. There are snooty, obvious attacks on George Bush, snide remarks about religion, and gross-out descriptions. The record supposedly chronicles some dystopian near future, but it registers little more than cheap complaints about right now. Given Mr. Reznor's ornery, adolescent fan base, this is to be expected -- but it's a shame that a visionary with such a mature musical vision can't pull his lyrics out from the depths of the insipid and juvenile.

Transcribed by Lt. Randazzo

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