PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

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
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.