Trent Reznor tweaks the NIN sound for the electro-rock era
Has any genre aged more poorly than grunge? Nirvana has stood the test of time because of an economy and vulnerability that were absent from most of the bloated, blustery genre. But grunge-era recordings by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots all sound terribly dated, especially in this era of effete rock stars. Grunge’s tropes—the ﬂannel, the long stringy hair, the macho spleen and overcooked guitar workouts—haven’t become parody over time; they began as parody, an unintentional lampoon of the six-string everyman’s delusions of grandeur.
Nine Inch Nails were never a grunge band per se. Grunge was one of the most rockist genres of all time, hell-bent on authenticity through smokin’ guitars. Reznor, meanwhile, employed studio space as an instrument unto itself, and never shied away from using electronic tones and cacophonous samples to communicate his angst. Nevertheless, grungy alterna-rock defined the ’90s mainstream in which NIN ﬂourished, and its sweaty aroma, if not its methodology, suffused Reznor’s industrial electro-rock.
While many of his alternative-boom contemporaries languish, Reznor continues to produce and evolve, but he still hasn’t shaken off the self-aggrandizing sophism that’s so redolent of that era. On Year Zero, the 42-year-old is still writing bathroom-wall lyrics more suited to trench-coated teens (or Jim Morrison) than an adult. Mother nature is a whore who can’t shut her legs; reality is repeatedly yet superficially questioned; sex is death and anomie is beautiful. It’s meant to be a concept record, with broad allusions to a totalitarian future, with anti-religion and anti-war polemics as its lodestones. But in reality, every NIN record is a concept record about being a NIN record, and this one is no different—the message quickly subsides beneath the medium.
“You can try but you’ll never understand,” Reznor growls on “My Violent Heart,” neatly summing up his jejune preoccupation with the possession of arcane knowledge, unblinkered perspective and social exceptionalism. But if he’s not a subtle lyricist, he remains, against odds, an effective one—there’s plenty of dark grist in the mill for younger listeners to chew on. And, as an adult, even as one marvels at the homogenous tenor of Reznor’s perpetual anguish, it’s hard not to admire the brio with which he pursues his black-veiled muse: The content is perfectly wedded to the music’s bombastic fury. Year Zero is a crumbling digital citadel, glorious in its ruin, supplying deafening thunder to Reznor’s lightning-ﬂash homilies.
And if the album’s lyrics are far past their sell-by date, its musical style dates it firmly in the now. Reznor has been steadily plugging away at this sort of electro-rock as popular trends ﬂow around him like a river around a stone, but suddenly he finds himself in harmony with a current fad. Dubbed “new rave” by the U.K. press, bands like Klaxons and New Young Pony Club are wedding electronic beats to guitar-based music. While these bands tend to favor a foppish sophistication (as opposed to Reznor’s testosterone-fueled theatrics), they comprise a vanguard this aging auteur finds himself an improbable part of.
With its jackbooted clangor, Year Zero is a very fascistic-sounding album for someone who rails so loudly against mental enslavement; this contradiction has always been a part of NIN’s aesthetic. Its grinding synths and martial drums sound primed for a killer Young Jeezy cameo—amid the faux-house thump and splashy percussion of “Me, I’m Not,” there’s even a volley of melting, Jeezy-esque “hey”s. If it seems odd to cite a rapper in a NIN review, consider that Reznor himself told Rolling Stone that his primary inﬂuence for the album was the blaring collage-based work of Public Enemy production team The Bomb Squad, and this inﬂuence is indeed discernible whenever the album breaks free from itchy grooves into densely layered crescendos.
While Year Zero is unremittingly huge, packing a mighty wallop into every song save for the atmospheric release-valve “Another Version of the Truth,” it’s also the most streamlined album Reznor has ever produced, with catchy melodies underlying the towering constructions. The compositions proceed in concise, carefully pruned bars, with a rigid and texturally rich propulsion. “HYPERPOWER!” establishes the album’s aura with its slapping drums, immense guitar chords and mufﬂed war chant before bending into the heat-seeking electro-fuzz of “The Beginning of the End.”
The burbling disco of first single “Survivalism” scans back and forth as neatly as a typewriter carriage, then ignites into a gabba-gabba-hey chorus. “The Good Soldier” is a funky shufﬂe laced with stark mechanical drum claps, leavened by ﬂoating chimes and synths. Reznor maintains this dense yet lucid sound world—filled with submerged bass bombs, frayed electro hiccups, ratcheting digitalia and intricately skittering percussion—for the album’s duration. Classic NIN’s industrial breakdowns are re-imagined here as disco death-drives, and Reznor, despite his lyrical obtuseness, remains one of mainstream rock’s biggest personalities.