Maybe it’s insane to quibble when one of your childhood musical heroes dumps a gang of almost-free music on the internet, but I wasn’t one of the overjoyed faithful when Trent Reznor unleashed the 4-CD Nine Inch Nails song-sketch marathon Ghosts I-IV on the world a couple of months back. For all the middleman-cutting democracy of its release, Ghosts struck me as a massively indulgent and vaguely ridiculous rock-star move, Reznor clearing out his not-quite-there file and trusting that it was worth something. By itself, none of the set’s 36 tracks made for more than a half-interesting rumble; taken as a whole, the whole thing blurred into an indistinct fog of vintage Reznor production-tricks. Reviewing the thing for Pitchfork, I wondered whether Reznor’s break from the major-label system that spawned him meant we’d never get a good song out of him again. With a hardcore fanbase willing to buy his leftovers and no music-business military-industrial complex tutting over his shoulder, Reznor was now free to keep puttering around his studio from now until infinity. Turns out I needn’t have worried. Reznor might not still be the brilliant slither-pop mind he was when he made Pretty Hate Machine, but he’s still writing songs, and now he’s giving them away without even asking us for five bucks in return.
With virtually no real warning, yesterday Reznor offered up The Slip a brand-new for-real album, for total free-download on this website. And even the presumably ridiculous traffic didn’t stop me from getting my download link after only a few hours of waiting. The idea that Reznor isn’t even submitting to the pay-what-you-want Radiohead model, that he’s just handing this album out to us out of the goodness of his heart, is a beautiful thing. As the whole Ghosts saga revealed, Reznor stands to make plenty of money by selling his music direct, and still he’s asking for nothing in return this time. More importantly, The Slip is a powerful, compact album of ten straight-up songs. Or rather, it’s an album of six straight-up songs, two washed-out ambient drone-pieces, one really nice serpentine instrumental, and one track where Reznor mumbles inaudibly over dusty, minimal piano-plinks. But even “Lights in the Sky,” that piano-plink track, works within the context of the album, separating its bash-screech first half from its more contemplative side. The Slip only carries with it the faintest hint of rock-star pretension. Rather than giving us half-finished sounds for their own sake, Reznor applies his considerable studio skills toward serving the grandly, cathartically bitchy melodies that made us care about him in the first place. After a day of repeat-listens, The Slip may be my favorite NIN album since The Fragile.
Year Zero, the last proper NIN album, went for the big statement at every turn, taking on the Bush administration via dystopian screeds and paranoid rants and an elaborate internet-based mythology. Exhilarating as it was to hear Reznor thrashing against bigger walls than the ones in his own mind, protest-rock was never what Reznor did best. His best moments, for me, have generally been his most slowest and bottomlessly sad: “Something I Can Never Have,” “Hurt,” “The Great Below,” and most of the new album, like those songs, finds Reznor looking inward. It’s hard to tell what, exactly most of the songs on The Slip are about, especially without a lyric sheet. (The download comes with a liner-notes PDF, but that’s mostly dominated by a series of grim, ominous geometric patterns.) Still, I could just be projecting here, but The Slip seems to deal with Reznor’s break from the corporate machine, or at least from the numbing conformity-minded forces it represents. “1,000,000,” the post-intro opener, finds Reznor sinking into alienation and desensitization, graphically imagining his own suicide; I’m hoping music-watchdog groups don’t get wind of it. On “Echoplex,” Reznor finds shelter from the forces of assimilation, possibly in his own mind: “My voice just echoes off these walls.” And on “Demon Seed,” the closer, Reznor finally seems just on the brink of breaking free. “I have been trying to behave myself,” he repeats over and over, like a mantra, before slowly interspersing it with “I have been trying to tolerate you,” the sort of line that just lets you know he isn’t going to bother much longer. The moment of triumph never comes on The Slip; the whole album remains immersed in struggle. But it’s an optimistic album in that ending; victory and self-realization are just around the corner. And so maybe the album’s title and its general existence serve to drive home the idea that this guy made it out.
Over the past few years, Reznor has been sanding away his stylistic tics. His new-wave and IDM influences, which once jutted out forcefully, have fully internalized themselves into the whole. Beyond those pretty-good ambient tracks, there’s nothing especially musically surprising on The Slip. But even as his sound ossifies, Reznor remains totally competent at what he does, distressing his hooks with just the right amounts of squalling entropy and processing his riffs so completely that they sound like purely electronic vrooms. “1,000,000,” with its mechanized distorto-guitars and relentless forward momentum, would make a great Rock Band song. The gorgeously clear piano that interrupts the scrape-thuds on “Discipline” add a dynamic layer of unashamedly pretty stillness. “Head Down” starts with Trent shouting in a pinched, declamatory bark, but its punishing trudge gives way to moments of frightened beauty. All these songs are going to sound perfectly at home when Trent starts turning up at outdoor festivals and hockey arenas this summer. And so one of our last great channelers of middle-school rage has not, it turned out, disappeared up his own ass just yet. With Reznor still able to conjure these bursts of radio-ready frustration seemingly at will, the world is a better place.
Voice review: Christopher R. Weingarten on Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV
Voice review: Ray Cummings on Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero Remixed
Voice review: J. Edward Keyes on Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth
Voice review: Scott Seward on Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile