Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero

After the heavy-handed, unmelodic With Teeth, Trent Reznor returns to form on Year Zero, his concept album about the coming end of the world. Now older, wiser, and weary of raging against the machine, Trent plays the omniscient spectator and also takes on various points of view, peering at our cycle of self-destruction through the lens of history, political and religious institutions, and the corruption of power.

This album is more accessible than Trent’s previous efforts, sounding smoother and less raw with its recurring motifs of guitar loops and electronic blips and beats. Most of the songs here share a similar structure (verse, chorus, verse) and instrumentation (grinding rock guitar loops and electronics), creating a cohesive feel to the album, but also lending itself to repetition.

The songs consist of a background of electronic noise (propelling drum beats, assorted tech blips, and static), as well as cycles of distorted guitar lines, with touches of sonic and vocal beauty amid the rough aural tumult. The electronics get harsh-sounding at times, but never to the point of totally unlistenable annihilation.

While each song has a full sound with a lot going on, the compact structure of the short-phrase verses and catchy choruses limit the possibility of sonic lift-off and blossoming, which only occurs on parts of a few tracks.

Trent’s manipulated vocals and smoother delivery seem more daring and wide-ranging than on previous work – it’s not all one-note, nasal whining and shouting – and while his vehemence reminds intact, the animalistic snarl has been replaced by a more thoughtful, pointed outlook.

With focused intent, Trent takes on the big issues, holding a mirror up to our messed up world, from the past to modern day, showing how we are perpetuating history, following the same paths of destruction through the omnipotent institutions of politics and religion, bringing up themes like the corrupt, powerful few versus the supposedly powerless masses, blind belief, hatred, and violence, widespread apathy, and the irreversible (or maybe not) cycle of destruction.

While Trent’s intentions are admirable (to shed light on our plight – hey, that might be one of his lyrics), the musical and lyrical execution of the aforementioned themes is not particularly exceptional or enlightening (well, at least to those who haven’t had blinders on for all their lives). His views are expressed in simple, repetitive phrases that state the obvious, and he should have been more ruthless and cut the song count down to make the album more spare and effective.

The instrumental intro “Hyperpower” has a steady beat and slightly distorted guitars that build in intensity, along with a repeated loop of a shouting crowd. Near the end of the song, the guitars and electronics wig out and the volume increases, reaching an apex of loud, distressed, tape-ravaging noises and a long screech (possibly powerful military forces crushing down the masses? Just a guess.).

That instrumental immediately segues into “The Beginning Of The End”, a song title which basically says it all, as far as the album theme is concerned. It’s also a short song at two and a half minutes, with the same steady drum beat, a full, distorted guitar sound, and Trent clearly sing-talking at the start. Half a minute into the song amid a break out of screeching electronic knob-twiddling, Trent makes his lyric point (refer to song title) and doesn’t drag this one out, quickly moving on to –

“Survivalism”, a fast-tempo, industrial dance track full of scurrying electronic blips and fuzzed-out guitar riffs and that recalls the song “Wish” with its punchy, stomping, “swing-yer-partner-‘round” chorus. Trent whips it up on the chorus bits, along with a multitude of other weighty voices in the background ““I got my propaganda, I got revisionism, I got my violence…I got my fist, I got my plan, I got survivalism”. Violently catchy.

Trent treads close to familiar territory with “The Good Soldier”, which musically sounds exactly like “Closer” with its steam-whistle whooshing noise and laid-back beat. The song also continues with the loops of guitar as he intones “How can this be real? I can barely feel…anymore.” The chorus is low-key, with backing bell-like notes and Trent barely raising his voice as he says “I am trying to see, I am trying to believe. This is not where I should be.” There is a short guitar solo near the end of the song, with the guitar sounding cool, hollowed-out, and melancholy. It’s this type of touch that raises a song up from its well-trodden path.

The electronics take over on “Vessel”, with its wheezy screeches, short static blurps, and tech loops. Trent gets shouty on the verses “I have finally found my place in everything. I have finally found my home”, while on the chorus, there is a multitude of his vocal lines exclaiming, where he sounds like he’s going up in an elevator really fast. Louder guitar riffs cycle in and at three and half minutes there is a split-second old Battlestar Galactica TV series-sounding cylon blip (you know, the tin can warriors with red, side-sliding electronic “eyes”). The electronic noise ramps up with zip, bleeps, and squiggles and other, harsher, spacey noises, until everything sounds like a demented pin-ball machine game.

Next number “Me, I’m Not” opens and continues like “High Plains Drifter” by the Beastie Boys, with an empty, echoed sound and Trent speaks in a hushed tone, but gets excitable on the ends of phrases, turning up words like “I can’t stop” and “I’m losing control” against slower, drawn out electronic bleeps and R2-D2-like squirks. His delivery is mutedly regretful as he says “…if I take it all back, some way, somehow. If I knew back then what I know right now…” as the song ends with a long instrumental that sounds suspiciously like the end of the previous song.

Trent gets positively poppy on the lyrics-heavy “Capital G”, seemingly an indictment of President Bush and his administration and also of the apathy of the average US citizen (who voted Prez G into office). The song is done in fun style with a catchy, sing-song chorus and Trent putting on a blasé, uppity tone. Guitar loops again fill out the sound as he says “I pushed a button and elected him to office – and he pushed a button – and dropped a bomb.”.

Trent alternates between the viewpoints of someone in power and the person who elected him and put him in charge. Here is a telling verse: “Don’t try to tell me how…power can corrupt a person, you haven’t had enough to know what it’s like. You’re only angry ‘cause you wish you were in my position.” Then there’s the even more telling chorus: “Well, I used to stand for something…trading in my god for this one, and he signs his name…with a capital G”.

“My Violent Heart” is an electronic number with soft verses versus loud chorus bits that isn’t as melodic as the previous songs. It starts with a low-key vibe as Trent’s talking vocals are doubled on verses, and then explodes into a shouting chorus of “on hands and knees we crawl”.

This is the beginning of several less memorable songs on the album, continuing with the too low-key and repetitive “The Warning”, filled with familiar guitar loops and electronic blips and sounds like “Closer” and “The Good Soldier” and is vocally similar to “Me, I’m Not”, with Trent’s vocals going up at ends of phrases.

Another sonic drag is “God Given” that utilizes the same beat as the previous song and consists of too simplistic lyrics and short-rhyming phrases. Trent tosses off the verses a little, like he’s not interested in them, although there is a funky chorus of higher tone and lower-tone Trents and other people to liven it up a bit. Check out the lyrics: “…and it gives such sight…and we see the light and it burns so bright, now we know we’re right…we’re the chosen ones”. And it sounds so trite…

Trent gets it together for “Meet Your Father” (i.e., “it’s time to meet your master”), a verse-chorus-verse song with short-phrase, emphatically delivered lyrics, electronic squiggles, familiar steam-whistle sound and guitar loops. There’s a break midway in the song with echoed vocals and a guitar line, drum beat, and electronic noise that builds up as Trent shouts “come on down” against the grinding guitars.

The quasi-instrumental “The Greater Good” has a continuous bass-heavy rumble, low-key beat, and far-off electronic noise. Runs of xylophone-like notes, a dawning-morning sound, and sighing, wordless chorus make the listener feel as if trapped in a dream, with runs of harp notes and a barely-heard Trent whispering “breathe us in slowly”.

The listless spell is broken by “The Great Destroyer”, a short three minute lift of electronics and guitar riffs with Trent sing-talking in a clear, tuneful way, going up again to a very high vocal register on the ends of phrases. The lyrics, however, are ominous: “…the end is near. I hope they cannot see, the limitless potential building inside of me, to murder everything, I hope they cannot see, I am the great destroyer” – and at this point, with this lyric phrase, the vocals and instruments briefly take off with an aurally exalted sound that crashes just as quickly into a bass-heavy, electronic bloops, and static end.

The tone becomes more quiet and contemplative on the short instrumental interlude of “Another Version Of The Truth”, with its measured, plunked antique piano notes and sustained static background, leading into the standout track, “In This Twilight”, a song of melancholy beauty with Trent singing more softly, sweetly, and yearningly than anywhere else in his career. There’s almost of feeling of hope in the face of destruction, as the final sunset approaches before the end of the world. On the chorus Trent sings wistfully and in a high register, delicately reaching out with “The sky is full of light, can you see it? All the black is really white, if you believe it” and ending with “we can find a better place…we must try”.

But it’s not quite the end yet and the final goodbye “Zero Sum” extends the more introspective mood with a bass-heavy beat, electronics, piano, breathy, almost whispered talking by Trent (which is too low in the mix to hear the lyrics exactly) “and soon it will be said and done and we’ll all be back together as one and we will continue”. The chorus suddenly rouses the song from its torpor with Trent singing “Shame on us, we knew from the start. May god have mercy on our dirty little hearts…Shame on us for all we have done and all we ever were – just zeros and ones” as a child’s cry fades away with piano notes and hovering-sky sound.