Friday, May 11, 2007

All We Ever Were. Just Zeroes And Ones.

Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

It was a Christmas miracle. Not only did Trent Reznor release a new Nine Inch Nails album a mere two years after the last one (four years ahead of schedule), but at the same time he put out a live DVD, masterminded a brilliantly original promotion campaign for the record and started an international tour (Sydney show reviews coming soon!)

Calling the Year Zero promotion a marketing campaign is a little dismissive, it's really an extension of the album itself in which the plot and setting behind the album's concept are fleshed out and explained by a cluster of secret websites. The album on it's own probably wouldn't make much sense out of this context and reading the websites is a fun experience in itself, not to mention the liveliness of the little community that has sprung up around trying to unravel the clues to reveal the next site and piece it all together.

Before I even get to the album there are three things that need to be mentioned about how well Trent handled the release of this album. Firstly, he's been very savvy about the use of the internet in promoting his music and in his handling of piracy. While most of his peers in the music industry are still, even five years after this stuff went mainstream, viewing the internet with mistrust, as if it were some kind of fad that they just have to weather until they can deliver DRM strong and draconian enough to make your computer grow legs, jump out the window and run down to the police station to report you if you try to play anything that you haven't paid for. The Year Zero ALG (dopey terminology but it's the only name we have to describe this stuff for now) got the online fanbase onboard in promoting the album before anyone had even heard it. The deliberate leaking of a few songs well in advance turned out to be a smart move too. But the thing that impressed me most was how on the very day that a high quality leak of Year Zero appeared online, the whole album was made available for streaming off the official website. Rather than being tempted to download it I just listened to it once off the website and then waited for the proper album release. I doubt it made a lot of difference to how much the album was pirated but it's probably the smartest thing that can be done about it in this day and age.

The second thing that impressed me was the very idea of the Year Zero ALG itself. Trent has been bitching for years about how no one does proper album art any more, the days of big beautiful LP artwork are long gone and it looks like even the cramped, small confines of the CD case shall soon be a thing of the past. I've been waiting for someone to click and realise that with online distribution they now have the whole internet as a canvas on which to supplement their music. I should have guessed that NIN would be the first ones to do so.

Lastly I have also been impressed by this Open Source Resistance thing that they've started up. It's worse than a cliché when a band stands up and rants about politics and the state of the world, but rather than just bitching Trent is actually using his fame and influence to actually try and start something that could make a difference. It remains to be seen where this OSR business will end up going, but even if it does nothing more than to promote peace and art then it will be a worthwhile endeavour. At the very least it will make a refreshing antidote to Rage Against the Machine's uncomfortably violent exhortations.

It easy to dismiss artists taking pot shots at the powers that be. They don't have any power to change anything and it sometimes seems like they never make any real difference. But while listening to Year Zero I realised that the fact that I believe the things I do is at least partially attributable to the fact that while I was growing up people were willing to stand up and say “Hey this is bullshit” when they saw it, either directly or via the medium of popular culture. It might not seem like much on it's own, but little by little the influence of these things does accumulate and does make a difference in shaping the world.

The dystopian future world of Year Zero is fairly unoriginal. Climate change is starting to cause real harm, the western nations are embroiled in war in the Middle East and their governments are taking increasingly aggressive moves to curtail the freedoms of their citizens. Yes, the future is just like today, only more so. Such a generic sounding story would be a little thin for a movie or novel but it is perfectly suited to being the concept for a rock album where a more complicated narrative would drag things down.

So anyway, onto the music. If you've heard the single 'Survivalism' then you know pretty much what to expect. Trent has kept the music pretty uniform in texture for the duration of the album; crunchy, minimal, electronic and totally laptop-mungus. This is an appropriate (if not commercially savvy) decision, as it reinforces the message of the album's concept and it makes the few spots where the music departs a little from that style so much more striking.

The album opens with 'Hyperpower!', a short instrumental prologue in the vein of a military march which is the closest thing on the album soundwise to Nine Inch Nails' previous output (possibly because the screaming in the background reminds one of 'The Becoming' or perhaps something off Broken).

Most of the tracks on Year Zero are, like those on With Teeth, short, succinct and to the point. This suits Trent pretty well as he has always had a flair for putting his dirty industrial instrumentation in pop arrangements. 'The Beginning of the End' and 'Survivalism' are the best examples of this (the former track has a beat lifted straight out of 'My Sharona'), and most songs on the album exude a wealth of catchiness.

The next few tracks stretch out their running time a little more, 'The Good Soldier', a gentle song with violent lyrics, ends with a sweet guitar solo that is one of my favourite moments on the album. In contrast 'Vessel' (a dirty, sexy song about drug addiction that recalls 'Closer' and 'With Teeth') ends with a freaky electronic glitch out which is also very satisfying.

As a whole I think this album has some of the best lyrics Trent has ever written. I'm impressed with how well he has succinctly and unpretentiously presented the story behind the concept while also making each song at least somewhat relevant and interesting on it's own. Sure this is kind of easy because every element of Trent's freaky dystopian future nightmare is drawn straight from today's headlines (imminent environmental catastrophe, authoritarian governments keeping the population stupid, kids taking lots of drugs) but it's still very well done. The lyrical highlight of the first half of the album is the tremendous (and tremendously unsubtle) 'Capital G':
I pushed a button and elected him to office and ah,
He pushed a button and he dropped the bomb.
You pushed a button and could watch it all on television,
Those motherfuckers didn't last too long.
That's a pretty cool opening stanza, but it gets better. It's immensely satisfying to hear someone so sharply stick it to all the right wing media blowhards who have sold their integrity in order to brainlessly toe the party line no matter how inane, stupid or dangerous it gets.

Later on the music starts to deviate more from the style and mood established early on. 'The Greater Good' is one of the best tracks on the album, a creepy ambient piece with whispered lyrics describing brainwashing in both overt and more subtle forms. After the brilliant 'The Great Destroyer' (in which a crazy ex-soldier gone terrorist announces his intention to “murder everything”) comes 'Another Version of the Truth', a peaceful piano piece (no NIN album would be complete without one). Is it just me or is the motif of the first half straight out of Chopin's 'Mazurka'? It's not the first time I've heard a snippet of a Romantic composers work in a Nine Inch Nails song.

The last two tracks, 'In This Twilight' and 'Zero-Sum' are sad album closers in the vein of 'Hurt' or 'Right Where It Belongs'. At this point in the album's story the world is literally coming to an end, although it remains unspecified exactly why. At various times it is suggested that it is either by environmental catastrophe, the vengeance of God, the vengeance of angry aliens or perhaps the work of the psycho narrating 'The Great Destroyer'. I like the implication that from a certain perspective these are all the same thing; “...and all of this is a consequence, brought on by our own hand, if you believe in that sort of thing”. In terms of sadness the lyrics of these songs give even 'Hurt' or 'Something I Can Never Have' a run for their money. Honestly, the first time I heard 'Zero-Sum' I almost started crying. At work.
And the sky is filled with light,
Can you see it?
All the black is really white,
If you believe it...
from 'In This Twilight' is sad enough, but then you get to 'Zero-Sum':
And I guess I just wanted to tell you,
As the light starts to fade,
That you are the reason,
That I am not afraid
And I guess I just wanted to mention
As the heavens will fall
We will be together soon if we
Will be anything at all.
Sniff sniff...

A maudlin ending to a Nine Inch Nails album is no surprise but this time Trent has found a way for his miserable message to become one of hope. The internet sites associated with Year Zero reveal that they, and the album, are actually artifacts sent back in time from the date of this future armageddon in the hopes that those of us who receive the message can do something to avert humankind from the course it is on. We'll try future Trent!

Year Zero may not be quite up to the musical standard of The Downward Spiral or The Fragile but it's not far off and it's concept along with the brilliantly well done supplemental material raise it's profile to that of a pretty legendary album in my estimation. Plus it has a song about George Bush dying and finding himself in hell. Awesome.

1 comment:

Alexandre Togeiro said...

Awesome post, Jon. I am a recent listener - and instantly huge fan - of NIN and agree with everything you said there! Its an incredible album. Trent rules!