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“Noisy new songs”? Dude, come on
Pretty Hate Machine is probably always going to be my favorite Nine Inch Nails album because it’s the least fully-formed. In a lot of ways, it’s a Human League album, except with punchier guitars and vocals from the Bright Eyes tortured Midwestern sincerity school, which is pretty much the exact opposite of Phil Oakey’s arch British sneer. Trent Reznor may have been trying with all his might to rip off the Chicago Wax Trax industrial scene, but everything came smeared in a huge, resonant pop sensibility that gave all his woe-is-me theatrics their power. Bits and pieces of metal and industrial peeked their head out from time to time, but the pathos came straight from Depeche Mode and New Order and the Cure. For me, Reznor has always worked best when he’s been at his most confused and confounded about the enormous instinctive power of his songwriting gift. Or maybe that’s just a projection; Reznor is certainly a skilled craftsman, and maybe he spends so much time between Nine Inch Nails albums because he’s working out all his arena-sized hooks, not finding ways to elegantly distress them. Still, I like the idea of Reznor as the conflicted intuitive pop genius, the guy who tries to make difficult art but who always manages to churn out transcendent tantrum-rock in the process. That conflict is all over Year Zero, the Nine Inch Nails album that leaked to the internet late last week. Reznor’s been building up to the album’s release by preying on his fans’ obsessiveness in totally ingenious ways, leaving USB drives with new songs in the bathrooms of his concerts and hiding clues to the album’s various meanings and subtexts all over the internet. It’s a smart move; Reznor clearly understands the nature of high-school fan-devotion, and he’s flatting his online cult by letting its members play Da Vinci Code detectives. Year Zero is ostensibly a concept album about life in a near-future totalitarian dystopia, and naturally there’s already a few bazillion message-board posts’ worth of fans trying to decode its messages. But my first impression of Year Zero isn’t that it’s a Radiohead-style hall of mirrors, and I feel pretty confident that more listens won’t reveal some overriding buried truths. But there’s stuff going on in there that’s a lot more interesting, to me at least, than Trent’s big grand-guignol opus ambitions. What I like about the albums is its constant warring impulses; it’s like the album can’t decide whether it’s a rarified cult object or a mass-market arena-goth album, so it splits the difference between the two.
Reznor’s always had a soft spot of deep-immersion genre-fucking iconoclast types, playing patron to guys like Aphex Twin and Meat Beat Manifesto at various points in the past. Lately, he’s been messing around with those guys’ spiritual descendants, showing up for some guest-bleating on El-P’s new album and bringing TV on the Radio on tour, even singing with them on some nights. And Year Zero pulls inspiration from both artists at various points, taking some of El-P’s spacey, discordant synth-burp counter-rhythms and TVOTR’s heaving forests of amelodic guitar-fuzz. I’m guessing that Reznor considers himself a kindred spirit to these guys, and on some level he is, but he also writes these enormous mall-metal hooks that jut through the songs even when he tries to hide them behind huge noise-squalls. In fact, Year Zero might be a more musically accessible album than 2005’s With Teeth, even though Reznor actually goes out of his way to make it more difficult. The problem with With Teeth was that it was boring; Reznor hadn’t released an album in six years, so With Teeth was a mostly tension-free reintroduction, not an attempt to create a fucked-up masterpiece. But Reznor’s pop hooks don’t come out full-force when he isn’t trying to make fucked-up masterpieces, so that album came off inert and underfed. In recent interviews, Reznor’s been talking up the Bomb Squad, saying that their urgent layers of noise were an inspiration. And sonic chaos is a big theme on Year Zero. On most tracks, Reznor establishes a central groove, sometimes using big honking Gary Glitter drums, and then he throws all manner of static interference and squealing skronk-fuzz pyrotechnics at it, doing his best to dislodge it. Those layers of noise don’t just work against the grooves; a lot of the time, they work against each other. Those tension-buildups don’t always come to a moment of release, but when they do, that release always comes in the form of a huge, stomping stadium-singalong chorus, and I’m never going to get sick of those. My favorite moments are the ones where Reznor doesn’t try too hard to unseat the central groove and still lets the big redemptive moments come. “The Good Stranger,” for instance, has a warm, slow digital pulse, sort of like one of the prettier songs that the Chemical Brother usually bury on the second halves of their albums, and Reznor lets that pulse continue unmolested. Rather than his usual noise-blurts, he offsets it with huge, glacial ambient synths, which goes a long way toward driving home his fatalistic future-war lyrics.
Actually, the lyrics are probably the least interesting thing about Year Zero. I can see what he’s going for, of course: the idea that totalitarian regimes bring chaos rather than order because they push everyone toward untenable extremes, sort of how the rebels in Children of Men (vague spoiler alert) end up being nearly as unsympathetic as the tyrannical regime they fight against because they lose sight of the importance of human life in the exact same way (vague spoiler over). On “God Given,” I’m pretty sure Trent’s playing a seductive but morally suspect rebel leader, calling himself the chosen one and whispering evilly. The album’s fixation on surveillance and control extends to the video for “Survivalism,” a neat little exercise in big-brother paranoia. The problem, of course, is that Trent’s whole new-world-order thing has been done to death. “Capital G” has trent singing in a ridiculously goofy dumb-guy voice and not-too-obliquely referring to the current administration: “I pushed a button and elected him to office / And he pushed a button and dropped a bomb.” And “Vessel” is a completely tired authority-as-invasive-sex metaphor. (Trent: “Same thing we’ve heard a hundred times before.” Exactly!) Maybe the album’s biggest problem is that Trent never quite plays the tortured, confused outsider, always his best role. Rather than sitting next to us and giving his own emotional reaction the the devastation he foresees, he tries to embody that violence in his own vocals. But Trent’s bigger when he tries to be smaller. In the grandly dubious pantheon of dystopian concept albums, Year Zero is incalculably better than stuff like Deltron 3030 or Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk, even if that’s not really saying much of anything, and its success comes mostly by sheer virtue of its titanic hooks. But its most affecting moments are its most quiet and resigned. “Zero-Sum,” the closing song, is a sort of gospel-tinged lament where Trent admits that he’s as guilty as the rest of us, that it’s impossible to blame the fucked-upedness of the world on shadowy authority figures. His voice wells up in a multitracked chorus: “Shame on us for what we have done.” For once, he’s one of us.