Sunday, July 15, 2007

Another version of Trent

Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero
Score: 6

What happens when the man who famously yelped, "Help me get away from myself," finally gets comfortable with himself?

Torment and art have intertwined for ages, whether in painting, poetry or music. But for Trent Reznor --- who essentially built a career off his angst, mainstreaming the industrial genre in the process --- that braid is everything. Isn't it?

In a 2005 interview with Spin magazine, Reznor revealed that he went into a drugs-and-booze tailspin after The Fragile's release, shortly before the new millennium. "It was very clear to me that I was trying to kill myself," he said.

Reznor got help, and it showed (though it didn't necessarily help his music). Signs of his personal transformation flashed on 2005's With Teeth, from its looser structure to its desertion of past triumphs. Gone were the kinks and coils of Pretty Hate Machine, the blowtorch rage of The Downward Spiral, the labyrinthine corridors of The Fragile.

In its place were --- with a few notable exceptions --- straightforward rockers. Among the exceptions, standout track "Only" appropriated the early-'90s bass and synth sounds of Pretty Hate Machine and referenced the "tiny little dot" from "Down in It." Except instead of succumbing to it, as he did then, Reznor stood up to it. And with his newfound insight ("Now I know why / Things aren't as pretty on the inside"), he chose to rise above, snarling a defiant affirmation: "There is no you / There is only me."

But no sooner did he reclaim control than he found new grist for his songs. Ideas came to him on tour. Not even waiting until he returned to the studio, he tweaked them on his laptop.

Now, at Year Zero, Reznor has shifted from the personal to the political, and from the confessional to the fictional. He's pulled himself out of the downward spiral and found a world that disturbs him. A world that, with a few broad strokes of the imagination, becomes an Orwellian nightmare: one nation under the thumb of the U.S. Bureau of Morality, the result of a military-ecclesiastical complex stamping out dissent in the year 2022.

Part allegory, part rock opera, Year Zero is Reznor's first concept album. In keeping with this new direction, he adopts persona after persona, and he contorts his vocals more than on any other studio album, likely aiming to disappear into his characters. In "Capital G," a right-winger spouts his views on war, the poor and global warming. "The Warning" introduces us to The Presence, a giant hand that appears to extend from the heavens. It might be a hallucination, or an alien, or none of the above. "Vessel" follows the user of a powerful drug, by turns experiencing exhilaration, fear, clarity and megalomania. "The Great Destroyer" exposes a rebel's thoughts of "the limitless potential / living inside of me / to murder everything."

Clearly an ambitious project, Year Zero extends far beyond the album. Reznor and a group of specialists carefully plotted their viral marketing scheme, employing T-shirts, USB drives, online message boards and more. There's even a network of Wikipedia-like pages devoted to the album's concepts, Basically, Team Reznor created a Matrix for fans to escape into.

So if you feel like the music sometimes takes a back seat to the grand concept, it's not just you. For starters, there are no great songs on Year Zero. No "Head Like a Hole." No "Hurt." No "Closer." And while the album has better cohesion than With Teeth, its songs are less memorable.

Part of this could be a focus on rhythm at the expense of melody. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "Survivalism," the album's first single. It opens with a buzzy guitar riff, a drum machine snare and an ambient techno burble, all looped. Reznor sings a verse, and waspy sound effects fly in. Then he launches into an odd guttural chant for the chorus, the first line being "I got my propaganda I got revisionism." It sounds remarkably like, "I guh muh prupa-na I guh ruh-vishin-nuh."

Rhythm chains together the next three songs, always repeating elements in a tight loop. In "The Good Soldier," they're a bass line and a handclap. "Me, I'm Not" puts the beats in an airplane hangar. Synths take over on "Vessel," beaming lasers and blowing raspberries until noise hijacks the track in a fusillade of caustic riffage, feedback loops, beeps and blips, rat-a-tat-tating percussion and some kind of wind chime.

While these rhythms make the album interesting (and are among the most salient examples), they don't make it particularly memorable. This is not to say that albums heavy on rhythm and light on melody cannot be good albums. If that were true, Tortoise would never have enjoyed acclaim. Yet Year Zero's songs don't resonate the way previous Nine Inch Nails songs have.

Reznor's departure from personal experience plays a significant role here. Serving as omniscient narrator to his imaginary soundtrack or script, he cuts from one character to the next with minimal development, making it hard to care about their lives and situations. If Year Zero were a screenplay, it would be an action movie, perhaps in the survival-horror genre. Lots of explosions, little dialogue.

Rumor is, there will be a sequel. Look for it in 17 months or less; Bush leaves office in January of 2009.

That's a tight deadline, Trent. Better practice your Orwell.

No comments: