There's a new NIN album out--online only for now, and it's completely free. Reznor's been prolific lately, what with the Ghosts halo just late last year. As a friend said when he forwarded the announcement email, "Is there a new NIN album every month now?"
Maybe. Because--and I don't know the man, and he doesn't know me, so this is just conjecture--I suspect that Trent Reznor is really enjoying this. It seems to me like he's enjoying the feedback, and he likes being able to put out material direct to his fans, and perhaps most importantly, he's getting a real kick out of frustrating his label's plans to monetize his output.
I mean, this is a musician who has had a long, long history of label fights. There was the lawsuit and public struggle with TVT, followed by a lawsuit against the guy who helped him found Nothing Records, and then most recently his disparaging remarks about pricing in Australia and UMG in general. This is a musician who used to release something once every five years, and now it's more like every five months. It sounds like he's energized to me.
Which I'm not complaining about. But it is a real change from the guy who used to literally write songs based on his notebooks of goth poetry. Even if the music's not as good, I'm kind of happy for him.
Update: The music's not bad at all, actually. And Reznor's done a very cool thing with the MP3s: they've got huge, high-res, individual pieces of artwork as the "album" art for each, by longtime collaborator Rob Sheridan. It strikes me as a very cool update of the LP album art, which was thought lost after CDs created packaging that's so much smaller. Now the music's shrunk to insubstantial dimensions, but it's reacquired that visual, almost tactile element. Between his earlier commercial experiments and this small touch, it's obvious that Reznor has put a tremendous amount of thought into this whole online music thing.
In some ways, Year Zero is a return to form for Nine Inch Nails. As opposed to With Teeth, which stepped sideways into the rock tradition, Year Zero sonically evokes The Fragile, both in sound (Reznor seems to have become comfortable with his synth palette, and there's not much experimentation) and the strong sequencing of the songs. The latter may be what makes this feel most like a Nine Inch Nails album to me: it's once again something I can't bring myself to shuffle.
Unfortunately, not everything here is as strong as The Fragile, or even With Teeth, which makes the sequencing a little transparent. With this CD, I started to realize just how similar the progression of NIN studio releases has been:
I pushed a button and elected him to office andYeah, subtlety's still not a real strong point here. "The Great Destroyer," on the other hand, is titled like a song with a lot more political content than I think it actually has--and it's the third stand-out song, despite the Aphex Twin-like TB-303 breakdown that consumes the second half.
He pushed the button and dropped the bomb
You pushed the button and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn't last too long huh-huh
I'm sick of hearing about the haves and the have-nots
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we've been doing things is
The more we let you have the less that I'll be keeping for me
Year Zero takes some getting used to, since (much like its predecessor) the vocals often involve odd ticks and inflections. "Survivalism," for example, has a great chorus, while it throws traditional stanza rhythms out the window during the verse, leaving the listener off-balance and confused (no doubt the point). But then, most fans of Nine Inch Nails are probably used to that by now, as well as accustomed to the slow process of becoming acclimated to Reznor's evolving work.
It's hard for me to imagine, in fact, how newcomers would approach this. I came late to Nine Inch Nails, only really starting to listen about four years ago, but since then I've developed a real taste for it. Year Zero wouldn't be the halo I'd recommend first, but I'm happy to say that it's hardly the disaster that I was expecting from the preview tracks I heard a few months back.
I think I missed this the first time that CDM posted it, but Audiohead.net's tour of NIN's recording space is very, very cool. I listened to The Fragile again this weekend from start to finish while walking the dog, something I hadn't done since Tony Scott's hideous Man On Fire almost ruined it for me. The change from that sound to the more stripped-down aesthetic of With Teeth is striking, and Reznor's studio setup sounds like it lent itself to that process. Also: lots of gear pictures. What I would give for just one of those racks.
On the infrequently updated "current" section of nin.com, Trent has posted the following:
Apparently it's a very good year for political speech in popular music. Who would have thought that George Bush could be so divisive? Obviously, I don't have any real problem with this on the surface of it--after all, I bought American Idiot in large part because of the political sentiments contained within, and I think it's probably the best music I heard in 2004. So it's perfectly fine with me if Reznor decides to use his soapbox--and it's not like he'd hidden his viewpoints before. His website has a link to MoveOn and Noam Chomsky, and I seem to remember an interview where he said that political apathy was unforgiveable.
No, what takes me by surprise is the idea that The Hand that Feeds has a political subtext. I've never been under the impression that Reznor writes well toward a story or a concrete idea--I like to talk about how each album has a theme, and you can sense larger narratives emerging from the songs as a group, but it's a rare NIN song that can be said to be about anything in particular. The only ones that come to my mind, honestly, are Starfuckers, Inc. and Big Man with a Gun.
So what are the lyrics for The Hand that Feeds? Does Trent Reznor Hate Freedom?
Right: so, Bush is a bad man, and possibly a puppet. But really, couldn't this be just about anyone? I think this describes a couple of co-workers, actually.
You know, when I first heard this single on the radio, I wasn't terribly impressed with it because of this chorus. Resnor has a habit of abusing the rhyming dictionary when writing his lyrics. As I've said before, if you're listening to Nine Inch Nails for the wordsmithing, you're probably in the wrong place. He's gotten better, and it grows on you eventually, but this is still a little over-the-top.
Where was I? Oh, right. I have no idea how this is supposed to have a political meaning. It just barely has semantic meaning. Trent, buddy, for someone who used to hang out with Tori Amos, you really haven't picked up much about non-traditional lyrics over the years.
I keep holding on to what I want to believe
I can see
But I keep holding on and on and on and on
Well, that's a little bit more direct. A crusade, justified in the holy and the divine, and a heavy price to be paid. Sound familiar? I probably would have figured that out for myself if this weren't coming from an artist with a history of blasphemy and ambiguity. As it is, you'll have to excuse my failure to leap to the obvious conclusion, especially considering the vague nature of the rest of the song.
So decide for yourself. Personally, I would have never really made the connection on my own. Congratulations to Trent, who will probably get a lot of mileage and publicity out of his principles. Always a nice combination.
For three minutes, With Teeth had me worried. The first track, "All the Love in the World," begins like an outtake from The Fragile: staggered synth beat, wandering piano, reserved vocals. Trent Reznor's voice cracks in the first verse, then recovers. Gradually, the song grows until it's good, but not great. And then, almost exactly at 3:13, the bottom drops out. The extra noises vanish, the piano reverts to power chords, and the synth beat is replaced by a classic cheesy NIN kick, pounding out quarter notes. Reznor reemerges vocally, stronger, surrounded by a chorus of thousands. It's like watching Keanu Reeves walk into the lobby of the Matrix for the first time.
At that moment, I knew that With Teeth was going to be just fine.
What you need to understand about With Teeth is that it is a collection of singles. I have a personal rule about NIN CDs: I never shuffle them. On the last two full releases, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, the songs are part of a cohesive whole, blending from one to another. The Fragile in particular uses instrumentals to move between songs, changing moods, tempos, and styles. With Teeth doesn't do any of that. It's not a concept album, and it's easier to listen to, although perhaps less ultimately rewarding.
That being said, there's hardly a bad song here, no matter what order you play them in. Reznor isn't taking any huge steps forward technically, but he sounds absolutely comfortable with the tools at his disposal, and it lets him stretch out sonically. Tracks like "The Line Begins to Blur", "Every Day Is Exactly The Same," and "Getting Smaller" are vintage NIN, with heavy distortion and vocals wrapped around a complicated but ultimately danceable beat. They're great, but it's oddballs like "Sunspots" and "With Teeth" that stand out. The former sounds like the Pixies run through a blender, and the latter struts monstrously through the overpronounced but oddly catchy chorus ("uh-WITH-uh-TEETH-ah!"). The radio single, "The Hand That Feeds," has grown on me with repeated listenings. Its rhyming dictionary chorus is its weakest link and a throwback to Reznor's sometimes clumsy writing skills, but the rest of the song is solid, enjoyable industrial pop.
By far my favorite song on With Teeth is it's most unique offering, "Only." The drumbeat is funky even by NIN standards, and it's got one of those two-note basslines that induce chronic toe-tapping. But it's the lyrics and their delivery that cracks me up, since Reznor speaks his lines like some sort of manic beat poet.
The weakest points of the CD are songs that don't take advantage of Reznor's new range. "You Know What You Are?" and "The Collector" almost stall With Teeth after "All the Love in the World" as solid but unremarkable NIN. They could easily be tracks from The Downward Spiral or Broken. Besides that, it's hard for me to find much fault here. The production is, of course, flawless, and the DVD side of the dual-disc format offers a "Hand That Feeds" music video and a 5.1 mix, which is very nice. The lack of a theme means that With Teeth may not hold up as well as previous NIN releases in the long run, but that's not the intention. Instead, it's a great set of songs collected for shorter listening times. Fans of Reznor's work should definitely pick it up.
One last note: the dual-disc version may have some decent features, but it also doesn't always play nice with various CD and DVD players. My car unit (a cheap Panasonic) and home computer optical drive (some bizarre Korean import technology bought on a whim) handle it just fine, but the Dell computers at work don't like it. They refuse to even see the CD side, and have trouble reading the DVD side. If you have a choice, and you don't plan on listening to it in a 5.1 setup, see if a copy on standard CD exists. The extras aren't worth the hassle.
Guess who just preordered the new Nine Inch Nails album?
I can't wait.