NIN's Year Zero: are we there yet?
David Jackson
5/14/2007 7:43:24 AM

It seems Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has a lot on his mind. Immediately after releasing his 2005 comeback record, With Teeth [Interscope], Reznor set to work on a follow-up, mentioning only to his fans in a website Q & A that it was “changing directions.” Arriving in just under two years, Year Zero [Interscope] is the fastest produced NIN album ever (previous efforts took about five years each). Moving away from the dark pop directions explored on With Teeth, Year Zero revives the gritty, industrial side of NIN – and marks the beginning of an ambitious and creative project that goes far beyond the music itself.

Trent's first blog post about the new album described it only as “Quite cool. Fucking noisy.” Now we can see why. Fans of The Fragile and of Reznor's more obtuse, darker material will be thrilled to know that Trent has returned to raw, mechanized noise rock mode. Bursts of static accompany the drum beats, along with siren-like wails and grinding noises evoking machines of unknown malicious purpose. This revved-up sound gives more punch to the album, carrying it through a few writing missteps and making the really great moments stand out. The raging chorus of “My Violent Heart” sounds all the better for having a crazed, screeching background behind Reznor as he leads a rebellious shouting match. On the album's intro, “HYPERPOWER!”, the noise of crowds and police can be heard behind Josh Freese's blistering drums.

The best part about the album, though, is its highly intricate plot concept. Set fifteen years in the future, Year Zero tells the story of a United States overrun by the religious right – free elections have been abolished, minorities are shamelessly persecuted, and civil liberties are virtually nonexistent. While the album itself is vague about this setting (probably to allow those unfamiliar with it to enjoy the music) understanding the context adds substantial depth to the album. For instance, “The Warning” is full of references to “The Presence,” the phenomenon displayed on the album's cover, which resembles a hand reaching down from the sky. People exposed to it feel inexplicable guilt about the planet's social and environmental decay, as well as a sense of foreboding – that unless mankind changes soon, they will be punished. The promised end seems to come on the closer, “Zero-Sum,” as a chorus calls out miserably “God have mercy on our dirty little hearts” amidst Reznor's rants about opening up the sky. Much of the confirmed and inferred information about the album's storyline comes from a set of websites created to promote the album concept – fake government agencies, “resistance” sites, and the like. Decoding these cryptic webpages has become a game for NIN's massive online following, and new sites are being unearthed every week.

While it's not Trent Reznor's strongest work, there's a lot to like about Year Zero, and if you're a longstanding fan, odds are you'll be impressed by the work put into it. Unlike With Teeth, this album is clearly a product of the world it was produced in. That means you get much more politics, much more bitterness, and much less hope. With Teeth ended with a self-realization, with breaking beyond an illusion or misperception. Year Zero appears to end with an entire human race resigned to its own end. Once you get over the musical quirks, like Trent recycling the “ominous spoken monologue” vocals (it didn't work on “Only,” and it doesn't work now), you can enjoy a return to some of the bitterness that made NIN world famous. And if you like the album concept, you're in luck – Trent has announced that it'll be continuing into his next disc as well, and it seems reasonable to assume that websites will keep coming. Sounds like fun. Rock on. Join the resistance.


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