Review: Nine Inch Nails: ‘Year Zero’
Note: I’ve been sitting on the bulk of this review since mid-May because I didn’t get around to finishing it. But now that I’ve wrapped up my ramblings, here it is — decidedly less than timely.
I have an unwritten rule that I occasionally break, which is: I don’t write about music. I could feel comfortable being a film or TV critic. But a music critic? No way.
I don’t know enough about music outside of what I listen to.
I don’t know enough about the production process to talk from a position of technical knowledge.
I’m bad when it comes to identifying instruments. While I’m good at recognizing different sounds, I don’t have the required knowledge of the names of a lot of instruments to talk knowledgeably.
Most crippling, I have this big problem with lyrics — which is that I simply don’t remember them. I hear musical instrumentation first, and lyrics a far-distant second. Sometimes I can hear a song 10 times and still not be able to tell you what they said. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps I’m too busy listening to the sounds and rhythms than the words. (Honestly, if I really wanted to pay attention to words, I’d be reading, not listening to music.)
One explanation for my lyrics disability might be that a lot of what I listen to has so much loud noise over those words (e.g., electronically distorted guitar), but a simpler explanation might be that I’m missing the part of the brain that allows me to remember words sung to music. I can’t explain it any other way. Most people seem to be able to do it after hearing a song a few times. I can’t. I remember the words only as I hear them said again.
Despite all those obstacles, I feel a need to talk about Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, released in April. I can say with confidence that this will be the best album I will buy in 2007. Of course, that’s saying basically nothing, because I will probably only buy three or four albums this year (if I’m lucky). When it comes to music, I don’t buy much anymore. I listen to what I already own, which is all copied onto my 40GB not-an-iPod MP3 player. When it comes to albums, these days I only buy those artists that I’ve kept up with since they defined my music listening habits in college.
That’s not to say I don’t listen to new music. I just don’t buy it much anymore, for whatever reason. But Nine Inch Nails I will probably buy as long as Trent Reznor turns out new material. Year Zero is terrific. I can’t remember the last time an album struck me as simultaneously: (1) Being so true to the artist as I know them; (2) being an evolution of the artist from the previous album; and (3) reminding me of so many other songs and artists in the process of listening to it. I’ve enjoyed this album a great deal.
I don’t think any NIN fan disputes Pretty Hate Machine or The Downward Spiral as the classics that they are. That said, I think The Fragile (both discs) is great and I probably listen to that one the most, more than the earlier ones. With Teeth was also good, although with five years between Fragile and Teeth, I was perhaps expecting something of an evolution and didn’t get it; Teeth to me sounds like The Fragile, Disc 3.
With Year Zero, I finally get the evolution of NIN that I expected, despite the relatively short time since With Teeth. Forget about all the hype involving Year Zero‘s convoluted multimedia storyline (a “secret” series of web sites, flash drives strategically left in concert restrooms containing album tracks, etc.). Focus on the music, because it’s great stuff. Featuring a much more electro-industrial sound than most of Reznor’s efforts to date (save the remix discs, most of which I don’t own and haven’t heard), Year Zero is both a logical continuation of NIN and an evolution of sonic design. And despite reviews I read that talked about a lack of guitar and an emphasis on the concept-album “soundscape” philosophy, this album is every bit as rock-accessible as anything you would expect from Reznor. (Unless you are expecting a guitar assault like Broken, which I don’t think anyone expects from Reznor given what he’s done in the last decade.)
Anyway, Year Zero easily gets added to my list of favorite albums. Below is a stream-of-consciousness track rundown of my thoughts and comparisons to other tracks, whether they be NIN or non-NIN. For what it’s worth. Probably not much.
Jammer’s Year Zero rating: (out of four)
1. “Hyperpower!” — No lyrics. Easier for me! Is this a Ministry track? Because it sure sounds like it could be one, with that mid-90s industrial-rock guitar feel.
2. “The Beginning of the End” — This is a modern Nine Inch Nails song in the spirit of The Fragile or With Teeth. I like it a lot, but it doesn’t have specific riffs that get my comparison machine revving.
3. “Survivalism” — Reminds me of “Help Me I Am In Hell” from Broken, but with much-updated technology and an ending guitar riff that had me thinking about the similar riff at the end of Downward Spiral‘s “Mr. Self Destruct.”
4. “The Good Soldier” — I dig it. No comparisons to make here. This song’s ability to suggest the personal impact of war from a solider’s point of view, with a dialed-down melancholy, makes it all the more effective and emotional than an angry assault would’ve.
5. “Vessel” — Ah, yes. My favorite track on the album. It has a frankly danceclub-ready groove, with its pounding edge of Reznor sonic rage, and an undulating and percussive rhythm/bassline. The more I think of it, with its should-we-fuck-or-shoot-up-the-place soundscape, this seems like it could be the 2007 equivalent of 1994’s “Closer.” The last 90 seconds are an innovate cacophony of electronic static, buzzing, and hammering that is Reznor at his industrial best.
6. “Me, I’m Not” — This is the bassline of “Where Is Everybody” off Fragile mixed with the guitar-like elements off the pounding instrumental “Eraser” from Downward Spiral.
7. “Capital G” — I’m thinking maybe this sounds like what I think With Teeth sounds like in those rare instances when it’s not sounding like The Fragile. Is this Reznor taking a swipe at Bush? Or does G stand for the general corruption that Greed has upon American society? Or perhaps the twisting or abandonment of God? I suppose this is why we have song lyrics: to do op-ed in the most roundabout and impenetrable of ways.
8. “My Violent Heart” — Classic example of the NIN soft/loud/soft/loud that was a hallmark of Downward Spiral. Pounding and intense and then quiet and whispery-wordy. The pounding parts feature a screeching that I can only describe as a guitar-like noise, because I have no idea whether such sounds are created from electronic-scratch or modified from real recorded instruments.
9. “The Warning” — This is the album in full-on evolution mode. Features guitars that are manipulated into what I can only call “elevated guitars” with a drumbeat background that’s like part hip-hop and part rock.
10. “God Given” — Here’s a Pretty Hate Machine-style track fast-forwarded to the current-day state of Reznor’s lyrical mindset (i.e., 2007 concept album featuring apocalyptic worldview) and created from current technology and sound designs. It has a new-school old-school feel, which makes it reminiscent of retro even though it feels current and indicates an evolution of Reznor’s direction. Cool.
11. “Meet Your Master” — The first 20 seconds are more new-school meets old-school before the guitars then had me thinking of Gravity Kills, of all things.
12. “The Greater Good” — An instrumental piece, and a masterpiece of disturbing eeriness and foreboding. I was reminded, surprisingly, of Wu-Tang Clan, which struck me as odd but real. It’s got a slowed-down hip-hop drumline, and elements of the instrumental arrangement reminded me of Ghostface Killa’s “The Soul Controller” off Ironman.
13. “The Great Destroyer” — Given the title and the reference that “the end is near,” I can only imagine that this track’s ending onslaught of electronic noise — which is about as hardcore electro as I’ve heard on a regular NIN album (the remixes are full of such things) and reminded me instantly of Aphex Twin’s “Ventolin” — must represent some sort of world-ending calamity.
14. “Another Version of the Truth” — This quiet instrumental piece is the calm after the apocalyptic storm, perhaps? I’m thinking Downward Spiral‘s “A Warm Place” as the closest parallel. Or perhaps the instrumentation of “Hurt.”
15. “In This Twilight” — Who would’ve thought that Reznor would’ve made me think of The Chemical Brothers? But this track sure does. I couldn’t help but think of “Let Forever Be” off Surrender — as a NIN song with guitars, of course, and dialed down in terms of overall energy.
16. “Zero-Sum” — With the piano, this sounds like it came straight off The Fragile or With Teeth, but it’s got a standout drumline with an electronic manipulation that gives the song this feeling of mellow calmness and makes it feel like it belongs with this album rather than on one of its predecessors. It’s a bleak album capper, but it feels like it’s at peace with that bleakness.