Breaking the tradition of a five-year gap between albums, Trent Reznor has released the new Nine Inch Nails album “Year Zero” (2007) a mere two years after “With Teeth” (2005). Reznor attributes the long periods between albums in the past on alcohol and drug excess that comes from touring. Sober now for the last several years, focused and confident, Reznor’s “Year Zero” is perhaps the best album of his career.
“Highly conceptual. Quite noisy. F@!#ing cool” is how Reznor describes “Year Zero,” which I think, really hits the (pardon the pun) nail on the head. Stepping outside himself and eschewing NIN’s usual self-involved angry and depressive themes, “Year Zero” portrays a bleak picture of (presumably) American society sometime in the not too distant future. Conflict abounds, militarily and between classes, which is the major theme of the album. Different songs offer different perspectives of this futuristic world–from soldiers (“the good solider,”) to greedy industrialists (“capital G”) to extra-terrestrials; the listener sees this corrupt society from different vantage points.
While Reznor took a more rock oriented, organic, almost live sounding approach with “With Teeth,” “Year Zero” sounds more like old-school NIN in that it is more “industrial” sounding, with less live drumming. And whereas when listening to most past NIN albums, one gets a sense of what the singles will be, with “Year Zero,” this is not so obvious. While some of the songs have an infectious hook, it’s hard to imagine most of these songs as radio-staples, as the album is kind of “out there.” And while with many albums one can listen to individual tracks and enjoy the songs, separate from the album they are part of, “Year Zero” definitely sounds best when listened to in its entirety–as the listener can appreciate the songs more fully when the album is heard as a unit. Like any NIN of course, there are a lot of textures, often with a lot of instrumentals and effects going on at once; so while this album sounds good with just one listen, it just gets better and better with repeated plays. And while “Year Zero” is “quite noisy,” the album doesn’t hit you over the head the way “The Downward Spiral” does. “Year Zero,” while at times chaotic, is more restrained, but no less powerful.
The short chaotic instrumental “Hyperpower,” in its urgency, sets the pace of the album. “The Beginning of the End,” with lyrics like “watch what you say they can read your mind,” paints the future in Orwellian terms. Tuneful and straightforward, “The Beginning of the End” is somewhat similar to the styling of “With Teeth” era NIN. The rocking “Survivalism,” already a radio hit, while not terribly challenging or one of the album’s strongest songs, is effective and good enough. The somewhat subdued “The Good Solider,” is taken from the perspective of a soldier, who is seriously questioning why he is fighting. The chimes towards the end of the song are especially effective. The bizarre, totally off-beat “Vessel,” sounds “big” but also spacey. When I listen to it I visualize a Tyrannosaurus Rex romping through some prehistoric jungle. I interpret the song to be about some kind of drug/mind control devise. The meaning behind the eerie, sluggish “Me, I’m Not” is ambiguous. A cool song, this one needs to grow on you. The industrial anthem “capital G” is perhaps one of the strongest songs on the album. From the perspective of “the machine,” the shakers and the movers behind business interests and the military-industrial-complex, “capital G” depicts the ruthlessness of those who hold the real power. “My Violent Heart,” which goes back-and-forth between a restrained verse and loud, frenzied chorus, is quite captivating. The meaning of the song is somewhat vague–with the clear message that actions have consequences, as Reznor proclaims:
“you have set something in motion
much greater than you’ve ever known
standing there in all your grand naivety
about to reap what you have sown”
Another very off-beat but cool song, “The Warning,” describes the world from the perspective of some kind of alien life-form, perhaps “the presence,” the four fingered being that appears on the cover of the album. The religiously themed “God Given” has a real danceable beat to it, and could probably get a few spins in the clubs. “Meet Your Master,” both thematically and musically, sounds like a cross between “Head Like a Hole” and “Burn,” but is more three-dimensional and intricate. The instrumental “The Greater Good,” a medley of several different instruments is very low-key, creepy, and effective. The melodic and dark “The Great Destroyer” moves the album along nicely. One of Reznor’s finest instrumental compositions, “Another Version of the Truth” is hauntingly beautiful and melancholy in its’ understated elegance. The low-key “In this Twilight,” describing one’s emotions on the eve of Armageddon, is stunning. The submissive finale “Year Zero,” is the perfect closer, leaving a lasting impression that sums up many of the albums themes:
“shame on us
doomed from the start
may god have mercy
on our dirty little hearts
shame on us
for all we’ve done
and all we ever were
just zeros and ones”
While I loved “With Teeth,” there is no doubt in my mind that this is a superior album. Even though I’m a huge NIN fan and tried my best to be objective while reviewing this album, there really isn’t a negative thing I can say about it. “Year Zero” is a total triumph, musically and thematically. With the state of the world the way it is, living in George W. Bush’s America, an album like “Year Zero” needed to be made. Not offering any simplistic solutions and without preaching, Reznor has made the definitive album of this decade–an album encompassing the feelings of anxiety and despair one feels living in the `00s, while taking NIN’s music to new heights. Reznor’s “Year Zero” is an undisputed masterpiece that is essential listening.