HAPPY CAMPERS: Having come clean about getting clean, Reznor can no longer draw on his own tortured psyche for material.
The sticker that adorns the cover of the new Nine Inch Nails album, Year Zero (Interscope), promises “16 noisy new songs.” Really? Had Trent Reznor been dropping hints about recording a collection of jazz standards or something? Noise, after all, is the essence of Reznor’s art. Indeed, noise has been integral to rock and roll ever since Ike Turner plugged in for “Rocket 88.” Reznor just happens to be one of the studio wonks who were around to realize the potential of the new digital synths that were coming on line by the late ’80s, and then to take the shaping of noise one step farther when technology made it possible for one person alone in a studio or even a bedroom to push the envelope to its limits. His particular talent lay in bringing disco beats, heavy-metal guitars, techno glitches, and white-noise hooks together into something palatable for a mass audience, and in translating his own obsessions, compulsions, and neuroses into shout-along pop songs. For all the soul-wrenching, techno-industrial complexity of a Nine Inch Nails hit like “Head like a Hole,” the results were as radio-friendly in their day as the latest Justin Timberlake single is now.
In the wake of Pretty Hate Machine (TVT), I looked forward to each new industrial salvo from Reznor. Without even realizing it, he’d been instrumental in changing the vocabulary of pop music. Sure, Ministry may have gotten there first. And Einstürzende Neubauten have always been more “industrial” than Nine Inch Nails. But sometimes you just have to go with the flow. And for the bulk of the ’90s, for a rockist like me, that flow was headed in Reznor’s direction, especially when he began incorporating Bowiesque piano respites and conceptual prog-rock elements into his ever expanding palette on 1994’s The Downward Spiral, an album that was five years in the making. Digital had made noise so easy to reproduce that by itself it no longer meant anything. So Reznor learned how to sculpt it, in the process creating an image of a vampiric mad scientist whose actual Frankenstein monster, Marilyn Manson, really did run amok and turn on his maker.
So it’s disheartening to find the crown prince of digital darkness falling back on his old ways with Year Zero, an album that does little more than plunder old Nine Inch Nails tracks to create a musical backdrop for Reznor’s one new obsession — the war in Iraq — and a few old ones (authoritarianism, alienation, human degradation, paranoia, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.). As for the “16 noisy new songs,” that’s a boast he shouldn’t have to make at this point — unless, of course, he’s kidding. “Hyperpower!”, the short instrumental burst of hard-hitting martial drums, churning guitars, and general dissonance that builds to the white-noise climax that opens the album (as if to prove he can still be as noisy and clamorous as he wants to be), suggests he’s not joking. But the real tone for Year Zero is set by the second track, “The Beginning of the End,” a straightforward guitar rocker (with the exception of a malfunctioning computer solo) that has as its ominous premise the coming end of the world.