Let’s get this out of the way: Ghosts I-IV was a self-indulgent, aimless batch of typical Trent Reznor instrumentals packaged in a brilliant marketing scheme. For all of the hoopla about the “innovative” release plan for the thing, it was basically a CD release with a couple of mail-order special editions available for the “true fans”. The “innovative” part, it seems, was offering nine of the tracks free as a teaser for the rest of the album, and offering the entire, 36-track album as an MP3 download for $5. Which, honestly, was about what it was worth. The $10 asking price for the plain old two-CD package seemed like a deal, too, until you factored in the seven bucks that shipping cost on top of it, and really, anyone who paid $300 for the super-ultra-deluxe edition would have paid $500 for it, just so they could say they had it.
All this hype and madness over an album that ended up in Target anyway for less than the online cost with shipping? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Mr. Reznor made gobs of money on his little experiment, but that’s really all it was: an experiment. Musically, it was devoid of meaning or purpose past the evocation of atmosphere, whatever that means.
Still, if releasing Ghosts I-IV afforded Reznor the means to release The Slip (that is, absolutely free), maybe it was worth the frustration of the former (particularly after the fantastic Year Zero) to get the latter.
“thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years — this one’s on me”
Such was the message on Nine Inch Nails’ official website, introducing the full-length, ten-track album to his devoted fans. And, unlike the “release everything we came up with” aesthetic of Ghosts I-IV, The Slip actually sounds like an album. It starts with a blast of five and a half tracks of the mechanimetal that Reznor is most known for, before falling off a cliff for three tracks worth of quiet and ambience, eventually culminating in a fabulous little closer that brings the two sides of the album together.
“Discipline” art, via the provided
PDF liner notes
The faster tracks, unfortunately, owe a lot more to the abysmal With Teeth than Year Zero, in that they’re mostly exercises in trying to be as loud as fucking possible with the odd dance beat thrown in for good measure. Still, for the most part, they’re better than the attempts found on With Teeth, in that the layering of sounds is far more accomplished, the construction of the songs far more, dare I say, mature. “Letting You” is like four minutes of the moment a bomb explodes, the moment when silence turns to noise but before the destruction it causes. It’s loud, sure, but loud in a way that still inspires tension in the listener, never quite allowing for the release that Reznor has so willingly given in to over the years. “Discipline”, which we first heard a month ago, is here as well in case you’re in the mood to dance, and “Head Down” masterfully does that little dance between dissonance and consonance that Trent made his trademark around the time of The Downward Spiral.
And while all of this is a fun little trip down memory lane, it’s the utterly gorgeous “Lights in the Sky” that truly brings the house down. “Watching you drown / I follow you down / I am here / Right beside you” may look like any other page of lyrics in the Nine Inch Nails catalogue (an observation that can, really, be made for any of the tracks that comprise The Slip), but Reznor hasn’t made a piano sound this mournful since “Something I Can Never Have”. By letting barely any sound in other than that sole chord-based piano arrangement, Reznor demonstrates a songwriting prowess that he too often buries in noise and angst. That he does the right thing by following such a peaceful, elegiac moment with 12 minutes of quiet, instrumental reflection is a tribute to the patience that comes with age. There was a time when Reznor wouldn’t have been able to wait to blow up that moment of emotional vulnerability with a machinegun beat and a song that yelled “fuck” a lot.
“Lights in the Sky” art
Finally, “Demon Seed” bridges the gap between Ghosts I-IV and The Slip by filling out one of the instrumentals from Ghosts (found on the special edition DVD release) with some chant-style vocals. Despite the new presence of the vocals and the aggressive beat, however, the emphasis is still on the music’s repetitive, trance-like nature, tying everything that precedes it on the album up in a neat little bow.
The Slip is a cute little title, likely a reference to that which Reznor gave the record company and the industry that so frustrated him for so many years. It truly represents itself as the gift for the fans that Reznor apparently intends, given the number of allusions to Reznor’s previous work that can be gleaned from this, the shortest full-length album of Reznor’s illustrious career. Best of all, The Slip represents the extent of the freedom that Reznor now has in this, the age of digital distribution, at a time when he is not tied to a label and is not being whipped by the part of the industry he always loathed. While the music may look backward, the way it has been released looks forward, to a far greater extent than Ghosts I-IV ever could have hoped.