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December 23, 2007

Filed under: music»artists»nin

Album Review: Year Zero

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:

  1. Big metal-sounding intro, often an instrumental.
  2. Two rockish numbers, not much in the way of dynamics.
  3. Groove-oriented song (see: "Closer" or "Into the Void")
  4. Another set of rock songs, becoming increasingly elaborate in terms of production.
  5. Quiet instrumental break ("The Downward Spiral" or "La Mer"), leading into:
  6. Over the top screamer (optional).
  7. Closing ballad, usually featuring Reznor's piano skills surrounded by a melancholy noise pad.
It's not so much that this hasn't been obvious before, maybe, as this is the album where I was most conscious of it. So Year Zero may not be a tour de force, but there are brilliant tracks here. This is supposed to be a political work, and while I'm not sure that it expresses a story as such, the change in lyrical content from the usual goth teenager angst has been for the better. "The Good Soldier" evokes the war in Iraq and the mixed messages surrounding it, while "Capital G" attacks modern right-wing ideology:
I pushed a button and elected him to office and
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
Yeah, 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.

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.

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