New York Times article: Year Zero / Nine Inch Nails.
- Flirting With Dystopia, Experimenting With Noise
By KELEFA SANNEH
Published: April 17, 2007
Miniature hard drives stashed in bathrooms. Unlisted phone numbers
that lead to ominous messages. A small constellation of mysterious
Web sites chronicling a grim future 15 years away. This is how Trent
Reznor is letting the world or some fanatical portion thereof
know about "Year Zero" (Nothing Records/Interscope), the new Nine
Inch Nails album, which arrives in shops today. Open the packaging
and you'll find another secret message: the disc itself changes color
with heat, turning white to display the copyright information and a
long string of ones and zeroes. In this paranoid world, everything
worth knowing is a secret.
The disc of the new Nine Inch Nails album, out today, changes color
with heat, turning white to show copyright information.
Mr. Reznor has been making aggressive computer music under the name
Nine Inch Nails for about two decades, but it was "The Downward
Spiral," his bilious but elegant 1994 blockbuster, that confirmed his
position as a true rock star in an era largely devoid of them. He
released a colder-blooded double album, "The Fragile," in 1999, then
laid low for half a decade. His seething 2005 CD, "With Teeth," felt
like a comeback, a reminder to his fans and maybe to himself that
he hadn't retired after all.
Apparently the follow-up came quickly: Mr. Reznor has said the new
album "began as an experiment with noise on a laptop in a bus on tour
somewhere." (A sticker on the cover bears a promise, or a
warning: "16 noisy new songs.") But "Year Zero" is much more
seductive than "With Teeth," partly because of all the so-called
noise. Hard beats are softened with distortion, static cushions the
tantrums, sneaky bass lines float beneath the surface. And as usual
the music is packed with details: "Meet Your Master" goes through at
least three cycles of decay and rebirth; part of the fun of "The
Warning" is tracking the ever-mutating timbres.
If all these sounds often distract listeners from Mr. Reznor's
lyrics, well, so much the better. In the year 2022, apparently,
clumsy sloganeering is all the rage. The album's first
single, "Survivalism," includes the phrase "Mother Nature is a
whore," a sarcastic expression of anti-environmentalism. And "Capital
G," which sounds a lot like an anti-Bush diatribe, has another
deluded narrator we're supposed to hate: "I pushed a button and
elected him to office and a/He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb."
Some will enjoy finding connections between these songs and the
narrative that unfolds on the cryptic "Year Zero" Web sites; fans
have had to figure out the URL addresses on their own. ("Another
Version of the Truth" is an instrumental track;
anotherversionofthetruth.com is one of the sites.) But even listeners
who don't know their Parepin (a sinister panacea of the future) from
their Opal (an illegal drug of the future) may find that this
fictional world serves a useful purpose.
It's a pretty neat trick: just knowing there's a hidden story makes
those generically disaffected words sound less generic. If the songs
share the same sonic palette, and if the lyrics sometimes overlap
("Down on your knees" in one song, "On hands and knees we crawl" in
another; "Can it go any faster?" in one, "Make it come faster" in
another), that's because they are all artifacts of the same fictional
Hidden messages, hidden Web sites, a hidden world: all this secrecy
is supposed to tell us something ominous about the future. So why
does Mr. Reznor's dystopia seem so familiar? His paranoid vision
evokes nothing so much as the 1990s, the decade that gave us Heaven's
Gate suicides, the militia movement, the first President Bush's New
World Order, the Y2K scare, "The X-Files." It's hard to spend much
time in Mr. Reznor's world without thinking of that show's famous
slogan: "The truth is out there."
In the 1990s, when online culture was young, it was tempting to
believe that the Internet was full of secret sites and furtive e-mail
messages and clandestine information; back then all those
mysterious "Year Zero" Web sites might have seemed pretty spooky.
Nowadays everyone knows that the Internet is a spectacularly bad
place to store secrets, and e-mail is even worse; it keeps getting
harder to make information disappear.
Last week Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont,
inadvertently summed up our archive- obsessed culture when he scoffed
at a claim that sensitive White House e-mail messages had been
lost: "You can't erase e-mails, not today. They've gone through too
many servers!" The truth isn't out there, it's right there: on Google
or YouTube or Wikipedia. People used to worry that the world was full
of secrets; now it's possible to wonder whether there are any secrets
Certainly the secrets of "Year Zero" didn't stay that way very long.
Nine Inch Nails fans who lack the time or inclination to puzzle out
the story can simply look it up: a few minutes on Wikipedia will
answer all your questions. (The game continues. On Friday "Year Zero"
obsessives were summoned by e-mail to a secret meeting on a Los
Angeles street corner.) But again, solving the riddle isn't really
the point. Although it claims to be an ominous portrait of a
fictional future, "Year Zero" seems more like an affectionate tribute
to our recent past.
Surely it's not a coincidence that the 1990s were the heyday of Nine
Inch Nails, the decade when Mr. Reznor went from cult hero to
mainstream rock star. And perhaps he misses his days as an
underground favorite. (Now that just about any kind of music is,
literally, accessible, it's no longer clear what "underground"
means.) Even the electronic noises on "Year Zero" sound a bit old-
fashioned: a throwback to the days when computer-generated music was
full of static and blips. If "Year Zero" feels warm and, for better
and worse, familiar, this is why. It's not really a cautionary tale:
it's a reminiscence.