rent Reznor unsurprisingly does concept very, very well. His new Year Zero concerns a dark, soulless place—the U.S.A.—in 2022, after it’s become a totalitarian state. Each song is a little vignette, a snapshot of a bleaker-than-bleak future, a chapter in a novella. Reznor wouldn’t likely cut it as a straight prose writer, though; he tends to be best in small chunks, punched up with inflammatory words, hyperbole, and lots of S&M imagery (“Head Like a Hole”’s infamous “bow down before the one you serve” has morphed into “maybe you get what you deserve” in “Meet Your Master”). (You’ve gotta think Clive Barker’s a fan.) Those things, however, are precisely what help make Reznor such a fine songwriter—one of the past 20 years’ best, in fact: he’s dead-on to the point and immensely creative.
Musically, he might be even better. The vast bulk of Year Zero was written and recorded by Reznor on a laptop as he toured the world, and its computerized sonics bear that out while demonstrating just how good he is with them. “The Great Destroyer,” for example, is a near-masterpiece of glitchtronica—Richard D. James could’ve made it. In fact, the bulk of Year Zero sounds like a rock album crafted by Aphex Twin. Like James, Reznor played nearly every instrument on the album himself, getting assists only on backing vocals from Saul Williams (two songs), drums from his touring drummer Josh Freese (two songs), and a brass section on one song (he can’t be expected to do everything, can he?). Atticus Ross helped with production, as well, but the other real sonic fingerprint here is that of mixer Alan Moulder, who’s worked in some capacity (producing, mixing, or engineering) with everyone from the Jesus & Mary Chain and Smashing Pumpkins to U2 and Depeche Mode. “God Given,” in particular, has a Depeche Mode feel to it in its synth patterns.
NIN fans should go apeshit over this album, what with not only the album’s apocalyptic lyrical content but also its accompanying Web 2.0 scavenger hunt (check out Year Zero’s Wikipedia page for much more detail than I could hope to explain). Everyone else should cock an ear as well, however, as this is one of the most forward-thinking “rock” albums to come down the pike in some time, playing with the genre in both form and function while showing off Reznor’s ridiculous reservoir of ideas in fine fashion. I dearly hope that Year Zero’s lyrics don’t point the way toward the future—but I do hope its sound does.