I can honestly say I have never been a huge fan of Trent Reznor’s brainchild, Nine Inch Nails, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him. I loved Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Nails song “Hurt” — Reznor’s pained lyrics are amazing and took on a whole new meaning when sung by the ailing Cash — but the original version is downright unlistenable. I am anxiously awaiting the release of the new Queens of the Stone Age album if not only to hear Reznor’s guest appearance vocally and lyrically, but the new Nine Inch Nails album, “Year Zero,” released this week, wasn’t even on my radar until after it came out, and only then because of numerous raving reviews. Like I said, while I respect the man’s talent, I have never been a fan of Nine Inch Nails’ “music.”
p. I have always equated Reznor’s work with angry, depressing, loud, grating, Marilyn Manson-style social commentary that merely pretends to be music. That isn’t to say I don’t see Reznor and Manson as absolute geniuses — in fact, quite the opposite is true. Any artist who can organize a mass musical rebellion against societal norms through painful music, both lyrically and in the music’s utter discordancy and chaos, must be a genius. Being able to make music that sounds like shit be enticing and powerful takes real skill — most just end up sounding like shit. Sure, some of their lyrics are true poetry if looked at on their own, but when set behind chainsaw bass, screeching guitars and synths and a style of singing that more closely resembles rhythmic growling, the words seem to lose their meaning. That is what I thought, anyways — until now.
p. “Year Zero,” Nine Inch Nails’ sixth studio album in its 18-year career, marks a turn in Reznor’s musical musings. That is to say, this is actually music. Sure, the album is still made of chainsaw bass, screeching guitars and synths and rhythmic growling, but for some reason it sounds more — for lack of a better word — musical. The songs on the album, unlike songs on previous Nails albums, actually sound like songs with melodies, harmonies and hooks that could easily be found in any rock album out there. The only difference here is that Reznor mixes the good the with the bad, making for melodious discordancy, if such a thing can exist, and in many ways, that gives the album a unique type of atypical beauty.
p. And yet, is there really that much of a difference between Reznor’s latest brand of organized chaos and that found on his previous five Nails albums? Perhaps, but I contest that our ears are learning to hear the order within the disarray and appreciate it for its perfection amid a soundscape of disorder. Nine Inch Nails has been producing electronic music for the better part of two decades, and it seems we have finally caught up to it.
p, Think about the fact that when “The Eraser,” the solo album of masterfully electronic laptop music by Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, was released last year, it shot up to second on Billboard’s Top 200. An album of slow, depressing, brooding music — about the farthest thing from pop, rock and country that you can find — made it to the top of the charts. For a time it was the highest-selling album on the iTunes music store. Since when did the average listener spend his time listening to “laptop” music? Who ever even heard of laptop music before Yorke’s debut solo album?
p. The fact is, the world of music is changing, and that is in large part why “Year Zero” will sound surprisingly appealing to even average listeners. In fact, some of the songs could even make it on the radio or on MTV. “Survivalism,” a back-handed insult to American hypocrisy, is quick, catchy and rocking, complete with a fist-pumping chorus of featuring several overlays of Rexnor’s voice, creating the awesome effect of one man sounding like an unruly mob singing, “I got my propaganda / I got revisionism / I got my violence / In hi-def ultra-realism / All a part of this great nation / I got my fist / I got my prayer / I got survivalism.” “Zero Sum” takes a little time to get started, but when the slowly entering piano comes to play full chords over some only slightly augmented drums, the relief it gives sounds like the most beautiful piano you’ve ever heard, turning what is a grating, painful mess into a sort of tainted beauty. Even the chorus feels like something you might sing at a campfire, arm in arm with your loved ones, even though the lyrics run, “Shame on us / Doomed from the start / May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts / Shame on us / For all we have done / And all we ever were / Just zeros and ones” — a rather unsettling view of humanity.
p. Reznor’s unique ability to produce music that is beautiful in its ugliness, what was once so hard to understand and so unappealing to many, has survived into a musical movement and age where its genius might finally be realized. Nine Inch Nails may never be wholly popular, but with such an eclectic mix of music finding its way onto the charts and into our iPods these days, perhaps Nine Inch Nails has found a niche in the new millennium.