Given that The Slip is the second major Nine Inch Nails online album release in as many months, it is starting to seem like Trent Reznor’s logical facilities have been utterly derailed by his newfound glee over being an independent musician with an internet connection — he hasn’t even mounted a tour behind the last record yet, for example. But watching from the sidelines as a spectator, it’s hard not to follow him.
It’s impossible to take this record in isolation, being that it so closely parallels — and follows — Ghosts I-IV, the epic four-volume instrumental album released via download back in March to great applause and $1.7 million in sales. If Ghosts was Trent’s middle finger wagging in the general direction of the traditional record industry, The Slip is his other hand swinging into view with more of the same — or, alternatively, with a fist. This time, it’s yours for the taking. “This one’s on me,” Reznor said in a note posted on his web site.
One of the most interesting aspects of both albums is the fact that he really seems to want to embrace and extend the possibilities introduced by online distribution and as a result is going far beyond simply giving away the music. The songs are released with a lenient copyright license which freely allows derivative works, and the individual tracks are posted online for the bedroom producers, who can then use the tempo data attached to each to craft their own remixes. Instead of 5″ square album cover art, each song from The Slip is attached to a JPEG of a thematically appropriate abstract drawing. There’s an accompanying booklet in PDF format, and there are four different packages available to suit different listening habits. Reznor is even using the frighteningly efficient BitTorrent file-sharing protocol as a delivery mechanism, because the heaviest edition comes in as 24-bit audio files which surpass the limits on audio quality imposed by the official CD specification.
Take a moment to reread that last item. Had you ever even heard of Blu-Ray audio before Ghosts?
Probably not, but it still wasn’t a perfect album musically. It was bombastic and meandering and sounded like Reznor had spent most of December frantically recording just so he’d have something — anything at all — to release as a reaction to Radiohead. He may be a visionary, but he’s not yet a serious instrumental composer, and wading through the learning curve right alongside him was a little painful. The Slip fares considerably better in that regard, largely because it’s riddled with the tortured vocals Reznor has been trying to perfect for nearly 20 years. This time, he seems comfortable and in control — and given the context, that’s no small feat.
There are missteps — the nine minutes of ambient drone on “Corona Radiata” are going to be hard to sell to a singles-obsessed iPod generation — but most of the tracks are compositionally closer to the killer “Letting You”, on which Reznor snarls “we’re letting you get away with it”, seemingly in a parody of the reactions to his stunt back in March at the so-called “Big Four” record labels. And no matter how much you may revere The Downward Spiral, “Echoplex” is one for the ages.
Most importantly, however, The Slip is a curveball of a release that whips around and still solidly connects with the temple. Even the most devoted Nine Inch Nails fan couldn’t possibly have seen this coming less than two months after Ghosts, and Reznor is the first high-profile musician to demonstrate that being best buds with the internet, even to the point of giving away major releases, actually facilitates continued creativity. If Ghosts illustrated the ways in which technology can shorten the distance between the studio and the hungry ears, the moral of the Slip is that jettisoning the red tape and bullshit shortens the distance between one project and the next. It’s not just a step forward artistically, it’s a triumph of logistics.
At the end of the day, it’s no more or less perfect than Year Zero or With Teeth, but once in a blue moon there comes an album whose incidentals — like the release cycle or the packaging, or in this case, the complete lack of both — genuinely trump any criticisms of the content. If we give extra credit for execution, The Slip blows our scale to smithereens, at which point all we can do is take off one point for not being In Rainbows and another for not being Ghosts. This one’s on us, Trent.
The JPEG embedded inside “The Four of Us Are Dying” depicts four amorphous blobs, but with each increment of the “Play Count” value in iTunes, they look a little more like CDs.