It’s the End of the World As We Know It
NIN Welcomes You to Year Zero

The Best Year Ever continues in the coming weeks, with new albums by Tori Amos (it actually sounds… kind of good…), Rush, Bjork, Travis, Wilco, Rufus Wainwright, Richard Thompson, Paul McCartney and Ryan Adams, among others. I have the whole weekend off (a rarity), and it’s about 75 degrees outside. Life is pretty damn good.

So what better time to talk about the end of the world?

Trent Reznor came up with about 10 signs of the apocalypse for his new Nine Inch Nails psychodrama Year Zero, but probably the most convincing one is that he’s finished and released a new album only two years after the last one. This is a guy who notoriously spends half a decade putting together his records, and it hasn’t seemed to matter what they sound like – a retread like 2005’s With Teeth takes him just as long to complete as a double-disc masterpiece like 1999’s The Fragile.

Most of the time, I can see why. Reznor is a one-man band, meticulously constructing Nine Inch Nails songs from the ground up, and he’s always been more sonic architect than pop star. His work is ugly, but precisely so, and his reputation as a fishnet-clad idol for goth teens belies his genuine craftsmanship. Reznor may have popularized industrial music, but he also brought into the field a sense of real songwriting mixed with a genius for pure sound. Countless acts have imitated his work, but few have matched his adventurousness and skill.

Which is why With Teeth was so frustrating. It’s not a bad album, really, but it was the first NIN record to steadfastly refuse to move forward. It was lean, simplistic, and surface-level – essentially, everything you’d think NIN is, if you’ve never explored Reznor’s work. It may have been just the record he needed to make at that time – many balked at the prog-rock overtones and overarching concept of The Fragile, and With Teeth was certainly a reaction to that backlash. But as an NIN album, it’s pretty lame.

So given that Reznor worked for five years on that record, I didn’t have high hopes for what sounded like a rushed follow-up. Reznor said he completed Year Zero quickly, in a flash of inspiration, and its birth was preceded by a slouching toward Bethlehem the likes of which I’ve never seen. Songs were leaked by placing USB drives in bathrooms at shows, an intricate lattice of websites was designed to lay out the world in which the album’s story takes place, and the URLs of those sites were cleverly hidden in teaser trailers and the like.

The marketing campaign has been extraordinary, and naturally, my worry was that much of the two years separating With Teeth and Year Zero was spent writing and creating this interactive element, with not much spent on the album itself. The idea is neat – the album takes place in a dystopian future ruled over by the U.S. Bureau of Morality, and while much of the record is devoted to deconstructing the steps America took towards this future, there is also The Presence, apparently a giant hand that comes down from the sky at random intervals to snatch people up. Naturally, Reznor uses this framework to rail against the current political and religious power structures, and the weak response of the people.

But is the album any good? Can it be, given how quickly this anal-retentive perfectionist constructed it?

In a word, hell yeah. Year Zero is a return to form for Reznor, a noisy, teetering structure built with human bones and clanging gears, a monstrosity that can stand proudly with his best work. The songs, while not quite up to the twitching, odd-tempo heights of The Downward Spiral, are mostly knockouts, and of a piece with one another, pulling you gently through the creepy concept. And Reznor has never wielded noise as an instrument quite as well as he does here – gone are the standard buzzsaw guitars of With Teeth, and in their place is wave after wave of reality-folding, brain-distorting, spindled and mutilated cacophony.

Also, this may be the sexiest album about the end of the world ever made. Many of these songs are set to sinewy, mid-tempo beats that will likely find their way to the seedier strip clubs before long, and Reznor never lets his voice slip into the throaty metal-shout he’s built his career on – his vocals are low-key and elastic for most of the album. When he does need to explode here, he does it with vocal layering, pumping up the sound with an army of himself.

Year Zero starts weakly, with an uninspiring instrumental called “Hyperpower!” (really) and a simple ditty titled “The Beginning of the End.” But once you hit the lead single, “Survivalism,” we’re off and running. The beats are a whirlwind, and Reznor’s concept is in full swing early: “I got my propaganda, I got revisionism, I got my violence in high-def ultra-realism…” It’s the most cathartic piece on the record, and it’s sequenced third.

Most of the songs that follow are slower and creepier. “The Good Soldier” is a standout, taken from the point of view of one of the government’s nameless enforcers. “I am trying to believe,” he moans, over one of Reznor’s deft touches – a small synth ray of light that breaks through the din. “Me, I’m Not” is the second cousin of “The Wretched,” off of The Fragile, with its insistent bass throb and noisy sideshows that never fully distract from the main trip.

Take one guess who “Capital G” is addressed to. Over a slinky, near-blues beat, Reznor does in fact take aim at our commander in chief, but his real target is those who voted for him (twice), and would do so again: “Well I used to stand for something, now I’m on my hands and knees, traded in my god for this one, he signs his name with a capital G…” “God Given” contains one of many heart-stopping moments on this album – the clattering bedlam disappears, leaving nothing but a hi-hat and Reznor’s whisper: “I would never tell you anything that wasn’t absolutely true, that didn’t come right from his mouth…”

Year Zero is, for all its futuristic trappings, a warning against tolerating tyrants, whether they come from the political or religious systems around us. As such, it’s nothing you’ve never heard before, and it’s littered with cliches, just like all of Reznor’s work. But this time, I’m able to roll with it a lot more. I felt the same way about Spiral and Fragile, two albums that spun tales instead of relying on autobiographical whining. There’s little here that breaks new ground lyrically for Reznor, but I’m enjoying these words a lot more than his last set.

But no one listens to NIN for the words, and it’s the sonic architecture I want to dance about here. The final third of the album is extraordinary, even for Reznor – “The Greater Good” sets the stage, with its whispered vocals and scratchy bass, before “The Great Destroyer” sets the formula on fire. It sounds like a standard verse-chorus song for a while, albeit a terrific one, until the harmonies take over on the title phrase, like an instantaneous sunrise. From there, it’s a descent through a twisted metal sculpture of noise, so close that it sounds like it could prick your skin.

“Another Version of the Truth” is an instrumental, the next step forward from “A Warm Place,” and it ends with two minutes of sweet minor-key piano. But it ain’t over yet – “In This Twilight” is one of Reznor’s best songs, with a sucker-punch melody that hits the stratosphere. “All the black is really white, if you believe it,” he sings, either a final capitulation to brainwashing or an anthem of hope. (As an interesting side note, the compact disc itself has a thermal label. It’s black when you put it in your CD player, but when you’re finished playing it and you take it out, it will have changed color – by the end of the album, all the black is really white.)

“Zero Sum” is a fine conclusion, a mostly spoken summation of where we are: “In our hearts we knew better, and we told ourselves it didn’t matter, and we chose to continue, and none of that matters anymore in our hour of twilight…” Again, depressing or hopeful? I can’t tell, and the music doesn’t help – it’s simultaneously bright and dark. The album ends with a minute of mournful piano, which could be a funeral march or a segue into the next phase. (And yes, there is a second chapter to Year Zero, which Reznor promises will be out next year.)

Concepts and fifth-grade-level lyrics aside, though, Year Zero is a Reznorian masterwork, a great new record that once again establishes him as one of our finest musical engineers. This is music built from schematics and blueprints, sure, but Reznor infuses it with life and personality, which sets him apart (and accounts for his commercial success). Year Zero is, in the end, a story of people raging against a machine, and don’t think for a second that just because the music is electronic, that Trent’s heart is with that machine. It’s a darkly human piece of work, and the best thing he’s done this decade.

Next week, we catch up with a bunch of minor new releases, clearing the way for Tori, Bjork and Rufus in the coming weeks. As an aisde, I’m gratified and surprised that my praise of Silverchair’s Young Modern last week wasn’t met with as many guffaws as I’d expected – in fact, some closet Silverchair fans came out of the woodwork to agree with me about Daniel Johns’ songwriting skill. If you haven’t heard Young Modern yet, the whole thing is still up for free streaming here. Record of the year so far, I’m telling you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.