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Grappling with NIN's noise at Year Zero

Ben Wener
The Orange County Register (MCT)

Trent Reznor is becoming a very narrowly defined auteur. His entire output could play like one long album, and Year Zero is no exception.

Nine Inch Nails

Year Zero

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2007-04-17
UK Release Date: 2007-04-16

To explain why I'm equally fascinated and disappointed by Year Zero, the new album from Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails that officially arrives Tuesday, I must delve into what it is I look for in a great enduring artist. In particular, why I'm most attracted not to warhorses, reliable for more of the same year after year, but to chameleons and consistently daring masters -- those restless reinventors who prove cinema's auteur theory can apply to rock `n' roll as well.

I realize a huge number of you just glazed over at the word "auteur." To NIN-inclined readers rapidly tuning out, determining how Reznor's distinctive but ever-narrowing oeuvre fits into some broader schematic just doesn't matter.

Such fans shouldn't be seen as anything less than staunch NINers, mind you -- serious thinkers who may also marvel at Year Zero, Reznor's immense conceptual piece, like the rest of us overanalyzers.

They, too, will eat up the disc's back story, perhaps cull from it some grander sense of what this relentlessly noisy, sometimes downright unpleasant sci-fi trip is all about. But they may not dig deeply -- not to a depth I suspect Reznor wishes they'd reach.

They're primarily looking for another fix of disturbingly delicious metal machine music -- precisely what their bloodstream requires. What will they care if "Meet Your Master," for instance, seems recycled -- sinister blips and melody out of "Closer," sentiment regurgitated from "Head Like a Hole." They'll just shout along with the latest cries from Reznor's ongoing exorcism.

That and a good brain-frying are all some NINers are after.

I'm after something more -- I'm getting to what, exactly -- but we can agree that Year Zero is what it is: another strong, in spots killer, Nine Inch Nails album. Where With Teeth was a crucial return to form, this one is an attempt to find a way forward -- not an entirely successful one, but a noble stab nonetheless.

It's grindingly funky, that's for sure, and unquestionably the most infuriated Reznor treatise since his seminal second record, The Downward Spiral. That album's hatred was often self-directed, or aimed at perceived torturers: friends, lovers, institutions. Year Zero, however, is an out-and-out attack on the warring ways of a crumbling, destructive world, wrapped in a bleak, cautionary tale of anti-totalitarian future shock.

I couldn't possibly relate the plot (if there indeed is one) any more than I bet Reznor can, or will. But you needn't be looking for Revelations clues to catch his drift: The end is near! The end is near! Our neglectful, greedy, hawkish history has led us to run this island Earth into the ground for good, and now it's time to either flee or reclaim what's left of the rotting soil. As he says at the very start: "Down on your knees? You'll be left behind."

"God have mercy on our dirty little hearts," he adds later. "Shame on us for all we have done." He's not just singing with guilt in his guts and sin on his lips this time. For once this is an outward and inclusive statement -- we're all to blame; we're all doomed. All of us, whether we know it or not, have apparently reached "Year Zero," and we're as lost as Kate and Sawyer.

What happens now that the clock has rolled over to 0000, well, I don't really know, nor does the album really say. It's tempting to hear it as some industrial-rock radio play from 2022 transmitted back in time (hence all the static) by an underground resistance movement hoping to reshape future-historical events in an effort to bring down a madman.

Think that's it? Me either.

But Reznor has been fostering such theories almost since the year began via clever tricks. First there were secret Web sites discovered by intrepid fans (mostly in Europe) who spotted clues on tour T-shirts or in the minutiae of the new NIN live DVD, Beside You in Time. Then there were leaked MP3s, found by concert-goers on USB drives conspicuously left behind in bathrooms in Lisbon and Madrid.

And the whole saga has been streaming at yearzero.nin.com and elsewhere since April 4, since which time what-does-it-all-mean speculation has only grown more rampant.

We realize this is all related to getting word out about a new album. But let's not whisper that near Trent, shall we?

"The term `marketing'" -- that's the term I'd use, anyway -- "sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment," he said in a report posted at The Spiral, the official NIN fan club. "What you are now starting to experience IS `year zero.' It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record. It IS the art form ... and we're just getting started."

About this subject -- adapting to a new means of music consumption -- he's been ranting like a street prophet biting the hand that once fed him.

The abandoned-USB stunts, for instance, were "simply a mechanism of leaking the music and data we wanted out there," he told Britain's The Guardian. "The medium of the CD is outdated and irrelevant. It's really painfully obvious what people want -- DRM (digital-rights management)-free music they can do what they want with. If the greedy record industry would embrace the concept I truly think people would pay for music and consume more of it."

I don't disagree. But he's kidding himself if he thinks he hasn't foisted a gimmick on his minions that will make them more obsessive. He's proving his point, really: Next week I bet NIN will dominate Billboard's albums chart.

But I was saying something about auteurism, wasn't I?

The idea, handed down from French critics in the `50s, is a simple one: The creator is the author, or auteur. Directors author their films, no matter how many people work on them. Likewise, Reznor's vision is evident in everything he issues, no matter who helps him.

My trouble is that he's becoming a very narrowly defined auteur. His entire output could play like one long album, and Year Zero is no exception. For all its adventurousness and manifesto statements that illustrate how piercing his global disgruntlement can get, it's needlessly caked in grime, a smoke-and-mirrors tactic disguising the fact that you've heard most of this before.

A truly daring, minimalist record wouldn't have mucked things up with digital distortion. It might have found Reznor stripping everything away -- retaining his feel but molding it into a new shape.

Like Bowie, a hero of his, has in the past. When he unveiled Ziggy Stardust as an entity, he also put forth a genre-upending sound; when he withdrew from the world in a drug-fueled haze, he teamed with Brian Eno and hit upon yet another new direction. He wasn't afraid to radicalize his music along with his look, or articulate feelings in songs that could be both brash and beautiful.

Nick Cave -- he's another demon in the dark with an array of shades on his palette. For proof, check out Grinderman, the wild debut from a new project he's fronting that restores him to both the seething, swaggering erotica of his fiercest solo work (say, 1996's Murder Ballads) and the garish garage-rock the Aussie first conjured with the Birthday Party.

You could accuse him, too, of spinning his wheels -- if across nearly three decades of work Cave hadn't also recorded handfuls of haunting, gorgeous ballads (1997's The Boatman's Call is loaded with `em). Most any album from the guy has filtered a variety of approaches through his viewpoint, not just one skull-splitting pile-driver after another.

I can't just give up on Reznor, because he's so far ahead of his pack. No one in his field brings as much detail, finesse or steadfastness: "What I've tried to do with brutal honesty throughout my music-writing era is to reveal my fear," he told me in 2005. I believe that's the case with Year Zero, too.

Only, it's difficult to swallow his warning without smirking, given the folderol surrounding it. It's harder still to look upon Reznor as a visionary worth following when he has gotten locked into one familiar style. It'd be like if Scorsese only ever made mob flicks, you know?

Right: Plenty of people would prefer that, too.

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