For so many of us, at least those fortunate enough to have adequate shelter and internet access in parts of the world bracing for the inevitable impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last few weeks have unfolded in a delirious mix of coziness and dread—two sensations that would be utterly incompatible under any other circumstances. If you’re among the lucky ones who hasn’t already succumbed or lost a loved one to the deadly virus currently sweeping across the globe, the directive has been to remain in your dwelling and, basically, chill out while you wait for people around you to start dying. Never have the creature comforts of music, books, podcasts, TV, film and online connectivity felt like such a lifeline as our collective future hangs in the balance.
In order to help us navigate the emotional paradox we now find ourselves in, Nine Inch Nails surprise-dropped a pair of free instrumental albums that mastermind Trent Reznor and longtime creative partner Atticus Ross constructed in direct response to the crisis. Reznor’s accompanying statement—a letter he opens by addressing his audience as “Friends”—makes it abundantly clear that he and Ross are going through the exact same spin-cycle of feelings too: “As the news seems to turn ever more grim by the hour, we’ve found ourselves vacillating wildly between feeling like there may be hope at times to utter despair—often changing minute to minute. Although each of us define ourselves as antisocial-types who prefer being on our own, this situation has really made us appreciate the power and need for CONNECTION.”
If you happen to be going through the now-obligatory self-quarantine period entirely alone, you don’t need to be reminded of the irony of the moment, with so much of the world forced to seek human contact by whatever remote means we can—solitary confinement with WiFi, essentially. Reznor’s got your back. The first of the two albums, titled Ghosts V: Together aims at fostering this feeling, writing that “things might all be okay” as we rely on each other in the ways that we can. “Music,” the letter continues, “has always had a way of making us feel a little less alone in the world… and hopefully it does for you, too. Remember, everyone is in this thing together and this too shall pass.” About the second of the two albums, Ghosts VI: Locusts, Reznor offers only that “...well, you’ll figure it out.”
For an artist who made his reputation by diving head-first into the darkest wells of human emotion, Reznor’s instrumental work, starting with 2008’s double-album Ghosts I—IV (an album which was surprisingly sampled on Lil Nas X’s megahit “Old Town Road), has been mostly absent of the tension and catharsis that characterizes NIN’s more traditionally song-oriented material—or, to be more fair, Reznor and Ross approach the instrumental format with a far more subdued touch. In certain cases, like their score for 2017’s Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, the gravity of the subject matter provides ample drama on its own, so that the music need only function as a support for what’s on-screen. These days, as an endless cascade of real-life headlines spills into the cocooned safety of our living spaces, the drama is simultaneously unfolding on-screen and within—within our own thoughts and feelings and, most frighteningly, within our own cells in ways we can’t initially see.
Which is to say that Reznor and Ross were going to have to up the ante if they were going to match the scale and pitch of the situation at hand. In their seven instrumental releases leading up to now—from Ghosts I—IV to a string of six film scores including The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, etc.—the pair’s stock in trade has been clouds of sonic mist that don’t develop all that much, at most gradually morphing rather than going through defined sectional changes. With these two new installments of Ghosts, Reznor and Ross show more than ever that they can stir up powerful feelings and grip your attention while retaining the same sparseness that’s become their shared trademark. In this case, less does actually materialize into more.
Ghosts I—IV marked the first time that Nine Inch Nails presented itself as an ambient act in a genuine sense, but it’s arguably taken until now for Reznor and Ross to successfully solve the genre’s central conundrum: How do you induce a state of non-engagement while giving the audience a reason to keep listening? Where Reznor and Ross’ instrumentals would often just drift in and out of the frame in the past, Together’s mesmerizing title track highlights—perhaps for the first time—that Reznor and Ross can reach volcanic levels of intensity even when they dial things all the way down to a low simmer. The piece begins with a haunting solo acoustic piano motif that fans will immediately recognize as quintessential Reznor. Many Nine Inch Nails tunes off classic records like The Downward Spiral, The Fragile and With Teeth were built on piano melodies pretty much just like this one.
In fact, it’s precisely the way the piano line isn’t new that ultimately contributes to “Together” achieving so much with so little—one single idea drawn out for 10 minutes but kept fresh by a slow rotation of embellishments. At first, Reznor hits the keys almost as a haiku, as if he’d re-worked one of his own melodies into a piano lesson for a small child before adding chords. A chorus of high-pitched voices and drones swirl around the piano, much as the image of thousands of souls departing the earth en masse now fills our collective psyche. Reznor’s melody hits an especially poignant nerve now that he isn’t imagining horrors but responding to them and turning them into some kind of offering.
At about the four-minute mark, a guitar imperceptibly slots itself into the spotlight, rippling in an echo of the 1992 Broken EP instrumental “Help Me I Am In Hell.” It takes over for the piano in a delicate thread of grief that, without a single word, seems to ask “Where do we go from here?” Eventually, the piece is consumed by static. Mournful as it may be, “Together” provides immense consolation at a time where it couldn’t be more necessary. With the myriad pleasures of Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and funny memes that many of us have been able to turn to while sheltering in place, we can lose sight of the fact that the fear level is growing. By giving shape to that fear—and nudging us to process the tragedy mounting just outside our proverbial windows—“Together” elevates from mere composition to an ultimate gesture of musical giving.
Reznor and Ross try to include some reassurance too. Also 10 minutes long, “With Faith” doesn’t build in quite the way “Together” does, instead hovering in a kind of meditative weightlessness as deep-throated chants croak over soft marimba pads that fall like the random pitter-patter of rain droplets into pools of water. With about a minute-and-a-half left to go, a once-futuristic ’70s prog-style keyboard line cuts through like the day’s first rays of sunshine.
Reznor’s letter paints Ghosts V: Together as hopeful and Ghosts VI: Locusts as fearful, but the moods evoked by both are too richly layered to just dichotomize the two records along such bold lines. Together contains more than its fair share of excruciating suspense (the incessant siren-like wail of “Apart,” for example) while, conversely, Locusts harbors pockets of peaceful reflection (such as the one-two respite of “Trust Fades” and “A Really Bad Night”).
Moreover, throughout Together in particular, Reznor and Ross stretch their ideas past the nine-minute mark several times, a daring creative decision they’ve made on only a handful of their previous instrumental tracks. This time, with several drawn-out pieces clustered together, the music both mimics and alleviates the steady ticking of time as it seems to slow down, non-movement and cabin fever ultimately (hopefully!) giving way to higher states of acceptance and awareness.
Reznor and Ross were themselves looking for comfort when they made these records. For better or worse, though, our ultimate source of unity may very well lie in the truth that what’s about to bond us together is in fact a slow-motion trauma. There’s no way around that. That Reznor and Ross have given us a musical vehicle specifically intended to help us process that trauma as we go would be commendable on its face. That they rise to the occasion may one day be looked back on as a miracle.
Revisit Nine Inch Nails’ Woodstock ’94 performance: