Ten Years On: Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero

In 2007, things for Nine Inch Nails fans were getting weird: songs were found on flash drives in venue bathrooms, burner phones were being handed out from the backs of vans that led to anti-establishment rallies, a secret show and a mock-police raid. Numbers people could call were found on the backs of CD cases, only to get a prerecorded message threatening legal action and accusing the caller of thought-crime against the state. Websites with cryptic and code-laden mysteries, addresses found on t-shirts, strings of seemingly random and meaningless numbers and letters unlocking digital conversations from the future, email addresses that sent back foreboding and unnerving messages about conspiracy theories, mind control and emotional suppression and warning of drugs in the tap water – every url led to ten more, and each contained something enthralling and terrifying. Apocalyptic aliens; the hand of God. Talk of a television series and a promise of something no one had ever heard before.

By the time Nine Inch Nails’ album Year Zero came out, the music was the last thing many fans were concerned about. A massive, sprawling ARG consumed hours, days, sometimes even weeks of people’s time on forums, metric tons of information compiled, all of it detailing a future America in which all had gone wrong, the far-right taking control and Hell on Earth becoming more than the threat presented in iD Software’s DOOM . No one knew what they were going to find next. A climate of mistrust, paranoia, obsession and a hunger for the truth set in amongst fans that invested deeply enough into it – and, in a way, it made good on the promise that what they were experiencing “was” Year Zero, the album only part of the artistic equation, their emotions mirroring those found from characters in the increasingly-not-so-alternate universe the concept had bred.

By the time the heat-sensitive CD that, when held or played, revealed strings of binary that led only deeper down the fictional digital nightmare rabbit hole, the band had been touring exhaustively, fans had torn web content apart and the boundaries of Alternate Reality Games had been pushed far beyond what briefly-amusing but ultimately cynical advertising tie-ins had offered in the past.

The sharing of all multitracks from the album not long after release kept people focused on anything but the album that they’d already bought (or, at the notable encouragement of Reznor in some cases, stolen) – with an ambitious, complicated and user-curated remix website launching, there were now dozens, and soon hundreds, of alternate versions of the album available to discover. In all of the hype, followed by extensive touring where setlists were unpredictable and electrifying only to followed shortly after by the enormous, technology-pushing, forward-thinking and massively-influential Lights in the Sky tour, designed by Rob Sheridan and brilliant innovators The Moment Factory, the actual music of Year Zero seemed to get lost in the shuffle. It became easier than ever before to be obsessed with a band’s new album without even focusing on the content of it, getting lost in complex spider webs of storylines, hidden secrets, fan theories and artwork filled with clues that led to more clues, bunny trails with seemingly no end (to date, many believe they still never found everything, and with the possibility of yet another ARG according to who you ask, many fans are still lost in the same thought loop of obsessive scrutiny in the name of often-abstract reward).

Maybe the idea of it was just too big to process at the time. This was an era where the iPod Shuffle was something more than an item given away in grocery store vending machines, and the idea of “The Album” seemed like a remnant of a time gone by. Beyond diehards, the general mainstream audience couldn’t have cared less, and the gigantic, ambitious conceptual nature of the record and surrounding universe were too daunting, too puzzling, too demanding of attention and time during a period where both were in short supply. Even from a critical standpoint, it feels unfair to discuss the album without getting into the thick of the surrounding art and experience, if not outright wrong to do so – with such a rich concept, and the album itself being labelled as only a piece of the work, how can you possibly appreciate it without thoroughly getting lost in the weeds?

The ARG got some coverage, because it was unique, and it was interesting, and that was it – reviews condensed down to ~700 words couldn’t begin to crack the surface, nor did they care, and with so many fans either distracted or isolated by the strangeness of what they were hearing, it faded away, Reznor’s sudden and unprecedented creative renaissance from 2005 to 2009 bringing an unexpected consequence that, due to his long gaps between albums prior to that period, had never been seen from him before – with so much NIN material being released, there was just no time nor need to pour over and dissect every element as obsessively as people once had; there was no room to digest before moving onto the next course.

What got lost along the way was one of the greatest concept albums ever made, the most ambitious creative project from Reznor since 1999’s The Fragile and the strangest, most interesting Nine Inch Nails LP of the century to date.

If isolating audiences and chasing unexpected sounds is a hallmark of Reznor’s career, then Year Zero is as perfect an example of it as any of his other outings. To release an album shortly after another having developing a reputation for taking half a decade between them that tossed away the live drums, guitars and raw vocal performances of the previous and replaced them with airplane noises, vacuum hoses, drum machines, slithering, muted singing and a purely digital sound was the most “NIN” move to make. Lyrically, it pushed NIN into spaces it had never gone before – always known for his personal, earnestly intimate and revealing diary-style lyrics, Reznor was suddenly imagining a futuristic, dystopic nightmare that was bred out of anxieties surrounding the second Bush presidency and direction he saw America going in, the lyrics like a collection of character sketches, scenarios and storylines, all of them grounded in concept and narrative.

It finds new, strange sounds at every corner and exploits them for all they are worth, opening with a deceptive, short instrumental that feels like a march to war, convincing the listener they’re about to hear something driven by drum kits and guitars, the follow-up doing the same, only for lead single “Survivalism” to quickly throw away all of what you thought the album was going to sound like, an arm sweeping across a crowded countertop carelessly. It’s one of the coolest, most charged songs Reznor’s ever made, quickly proving that he does have something to say, and can say it well, protest music for an era where people had forgotten how to protest.

At its heart, it’s an album built around political anxieties, and it’s hard to think of a more fitting era for it than now, even if at the time of its release – the very peak of the worst of the Bush years – it seemed as appropriate as it could ever get. With Donald Trump in office and in our minds every day, with white nationalism surging David Duke celebrates, with climate change denial having a new day, Trent Reznor’s deepest fears that are so methodically documented and illustrated through the lens of dystopic science fiction are now becoming more realized than ever, and Year Zero seems like a fitting soundtrack to our current times a decade later. If he released it now, we’d call it on the nose, but as a document of once-imaginary extensions of fears, it’s a sobering, frightening artifact from a time that reminds us that all of this was predictable, that our current mess should not come as a shock. “You see your world on fire, don’t try to surprised,” Reznor growls, and in 2017, it feels personal.

“The Good Soldier” illustrates the groove-oriented sound Reznor would go on to find himself returning to on 2013’s Hesitation Marks, the instrumental, emotionally sweeping bridge that NIN tends to indulge in hitting hard, only for the insanity of “Vessel” to crunch in, a song that sounds like someone in boots stepping in snow, chomping, gnawing at the ears, blasting over and over again in waves, hammering in the background, every element building in the mix, each something else to cause discomfort, shoving the entire album into a new space, the high-pulse rush of “Survivalism” unsustainable and the low-key melancholy of “The Good Soldier” too sleepy, the guitars and drums of “The Beginning of the End” thrown away in what seems like forever ago, even though only three songs separate the two.

Reznor sings ominously, cryptically, the paranoia-fueled, propaganda-overloaded world of the album weighing heavily on every song, no matter the subject. “Vessel” is a violently mid-tempo track, not too fast and not too slow and all the more menacing because of it. Nothing else he’s ever made sounds like it, even on the album it comes from, the ending plagued by exploding ropes of distortion that spray up and out, lacing across the mix only to fall back down beneath the surface again, volcanic and smoldering.

It can’t keep itself going beneath all its weight, the machine sputtering out, breaking down and reducing to “Me, I’m Not,” one of the stand-outs of the album, trip-hopping in its beat and otherworldly in everything else. It’s the mental portrait of a computer virus, a digital, existential crisis of identity, depersonalized loss of self and suppressed trauma. “And it’s happening; never planned on this,” he sings at the beginning, hinting at something monstrous taking shape, a classical theme for Nine Inch Nails, continuing, “I can’t shut it off – this thing I’ve begun, and it’s hard to tell just where it’s coming from.”

Fear of himself takes shape, whoever “he” is, and the brilliant lyrical advantage of Year Zero reveals itself in this – for once, we don’t know who Trent Reznor is in context, not the self-destructive fictional version of himself from The Downward Spiral and not the self-loathing, tortured artist of his other works. Even when he dips into his bag of common references, which “Me, I’m Not” definitely does, they come with extra interest, because you’re piecing it together; you’re trying to figure it out. On some songs, it may be obvious, but on “Me, I’m Not,” it’s as hidden and suggestive as the ARG was. Reznor’s vocals are breathy, bubbling up out of their emotionless surface, hinting at feelings repressed and hidden, but they come up through the music, anyway, something he has always been so good at, the synth-fueled melodies twisting and rising, put into a blender finally and whirling out, machines started up that can’t be turned off running into the distance, finding their own space, the creator now powerless over their creation.

“Capital G” is thumping and swaggering, Reznor changing his vocal inflection heavily, a throatier, douchier sound coming out, personifying the Republican stereotype of a reality-denying, self-involved, unempathetic lost soul that used to stand for something, but forgot what that could be. It’s the least subtle song on an album that at many points is surprisingly layered, making the focus unmistakably clear. Crowds chant “greed” throughout the bridge, chill-inducing and muted as a guitar solo emerges, sweeping and powerful, cutting deeper than if they came in every song. Far from the walls of guitars that the likes of Broken provided, their brief appearances have more impact on Year Zero because of how rare they are, sudden blasts of organic feeling in a sea of synthetic and numbed-out emotion. It’s a portrait of what it means to be worn down by the world around you, your beliefs diluted, your concerns shrunk down to only the very immediate around you, overwhelmed by and eventually converted because of the endless streams of propaganda, misinformation and faux-activism surrounding you.

“My Violent Heart” is another dark character portrait, giving Reznor a moment to shout – something he does very little of on the album, a tether for many fans desperate for the more industrial, aggressive sound they may have fallen in love with in the first place. It’s rebellious, dramatic and theatrical. “The Warning” returns to the deep-groove style and snaps, crackles and shuttles its way along, every sound from another planet, save for the bass guitar, foreign and obscure, as alien as the hand that reaches down from the sky on the album cover. Reznor’s lyrics speak of the end of the world, ultimatums from higher powers and humanity’s inability to meet them, the theme of self-failure nothing new for Nine Inch Nails, simply projected further outward, the self no longer the singular “I” but the collective “we.”

The apocalypse looming on the horizon of the album gets laid out in full, a promise of impending doom, and, with all that’s come before it, it almost seems like it’s for the best – when the song ends, it sounds like it’s being sucked down and into a drain, the sacrilegious elements of the song seeming to get pushed back against by the narrator of “God Given,” a song that outdoes 1994’s “Heresy” in criticism of organized religion. Where “Heresy” is a fantastic and outraged burst of hatred from a stewing protagonist embarking on their downward spiral, “God Given” instead sings from the eyes of those doing the judging, the verses persecutory, the chorus like a corrupted church choir, with quick, whispered lines somehow seductive despite their terrifying commitment to their dogma. Set to a danceable, infectiously catchy beat, it simulates religious fervor as much as it criticizes it, trance like and euphoric.

“The Greater Good” weaves it’s frightening serial killer sound out and gives way to “The Great Destroyer,” a song that, once seen live, seems to pale in the studio. It starts off, sets you up to think you know where it’s going, and then hits the “fuck it” button, completely nuking all of its progress, a perfect musical representation of a society reaching its peak only to kill itself, wiping itself out and opening the doors for pure and wordless chaos, unintelligible and formless. It’s ants climbing so fast and so high from their hill that they all topple over, black and tumbling, structures falling apart.

All of the grating, random and detached noises and glitches that do their thing in the background seem to draw back and then band together, eating the very concept of the song alive. Bridges, verses, choruses, hooks – these things cease to exist, and a surreal, wild ride commences, burning out in its own frenzy. People have often wondered who the song is about within the universe of the album, but no one ever really mentions that it’s about everyone, the human race, its hubris, its ability to tear itself apart.

“Another Version of the Truth” is a lamenting instrumental, one that seems to build somewhere, only to stop and swing into a totally different direction, one more solemn, more mournful, the hope fading away like a fog that’s lifting.

What comes next – the penultimate track – might just be the most emotionally affecting song Trent Reznor has ever written. It has more last-minute hope than “Hurt”; it has more beauty than “The Great Below.” “In This Twilight” features the most developed, beautiful lyrics of his career, one of his finest vocal performances driving them home, a song that works both as a moment of serenity found in the dying light of the Earth as the end of the world approaches and a gorgeous, vivid commentary on the discography of NIN itself. A survivor of substance abuse and addiction and frequent fighter of depression, Reznor’s music has at times been some of the bleakest, most hopeless around – his most famous album ends in suicide, and it only gets darker from there. But for some reason, audiences – myself included – find something impossibly cathartic, uplifting and inspiring about it all.

Trent Reznor, for all his lifelong darkness, never got defeated by his inner demons. Hearing him at his lowest, knowing how his story has progressed and where he’s gotten, is incredibly strengthening, a suggestion that someone so clearly at the end of it can still find their way back up to the light. “In This Twilight” is the song that summarizes all of that, in its chorus singing, “And the sky is filled with light – can you see it? All the black is really white, if you believe it; and the longing that you feel, you know none of this is real; we can find a better place, in this twilight.” It was, once upon a time, set to be the final song he’d ever perform live beneath the NIN moniker, and it was the right selection. Reflective, gorgeous, dusted with distortion and dissonance and yet resoundingly hopeful despite the bleak reality its facing – even mired in concept and seen as someone speaking to a loved one as the world ends, it’s still the perfect distillation of what all of Nine Inch Nails added up and boiled down comes out to.

“Zero-Sum,” the album’s closer, is another heartbreaker, beautiful and mournful, a funeral dirge for the human race, the title implying that nothing was lost, and that nothing was gained, just averaged out. “Shame on us, doomed from the start – may God have mercy on our dirty little hearts; shame on us, for all we’ve ever done – and all we ever, just zeroes and ones.” These lyrics get sang painfully, poignantly, and still too quietly, hard to hear beneath the unfeeling, uncaring drum track that pounds along, crunching out, Reznor’s lyrics and vocals becoming conversational in the verses, seeming less composed and more like an honest stream of conscious. “I guess I just wanted to tell you, as the lights start to fade – that you are the reason, that I am not afraid, and I guess I just wanted to mention, as the heavens will fall, we will be together soon if we will be anything at all.”

The chorus shouts out again. Reznor echoes himself, sounding on the verge of tears. For all of the rage, and all of the shame, and all of the frustration at what we are as a world, as a people, as an entity, there’s something still worth hurting over, whatever it is, but it’s gone, fading out. Piano plays softly. Wind blows past, as if through hollowed-out buildings. Werner Herzog would be proud.

Rather than the scathing, hateful commentary many might have expected on our society from the guy who won a Grammy while yelling “You know me, I hate everyone,” Year Zero ends up being an extremely disconcerting, alarmed and worried document of anxiety, fear and sadness, solemn over the projected loss or pain of a civilization that, even if you’re unhappy with, is still your home. It’s more mature than almost anyone would have expected; it’s more astute than anyone would have predicted.

The prescience of its concept is beginning to be lauded and valued, but the album itself still seems absent from conversations, the music overlooked, almost forgotten about. That TV series got pitched to HBO; it never happened. Reznor at one point discussed releasing a sequel; we never got one (save for semi-obscure references to its world in recent imagery and liner notes, the meanings of which are still not known). His other band, How to Destroy Angels, released Welcome Oblivion, and it echoed many of the same things, but had none of the biting urgency behind it, more a document of the hollowed-out survivors of the apocalypse than those hopelessly hurtling towards it. Year Zero fell through the musical cracks, somehow, and yet it still holds up, an album dying to be reevaluated, rediscovered, given a second life.

Released today, it would almost certainly make a dent in the wall – the way music is consumed allows for more discovery than ever, and with the mood in the air amongst almost everybody who isn’t drinking the Fox News Kool-Aid, its themes and focus would seem just as appropriate today, if not more so, a decade later. It’s an album that refuses to be pinned down, jumping around from song to song and yet always feeling cohesive, nothing on it a weak link, nothing on it out of place. It’s a towering sonic achievement and an important message of resistance through art, of protest through creation rather than destruction, an incredible document of discord and discontent crafted through the beauty of music and the inherently-productive nature of it. It’s among Reznor’s most ambitious work, and almost all of those ambitions get realized. Year Zero isn’t the best-known Nine Inch Nails album of the century so far, but it deserves to be.

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