There’s a misconception afoot about “Year Zero,” the latest project from musical puppet master Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. Launched in February with a cryptic message on a tour T-shirt, fleshed out in dozens of websites, scary voicemail messages, Morse code blips, murals, fliers and other real-world propaganda, “Year Zero” reaches a peak (but not its conclusion) with today’s album release. There’s never been such an extensive or well-planned campaign involving a major pop release. But “Year Zero” represents something more than just killer marketing.
Reznor has been complaining that the alternate reality game, or ARG, set in motion before the album’s release has been portrayed as separate and subservient to the album. He’s right. “Year Zero” isn’t just a cyberpunk “Dark Side of the Moon” augmented by a few impressive Web-based extras. Nor is it merely a game, the latest take on Quake with an amazing soundtrack. (Reznor did, incidentally, write the music and effects for that bestselling shooter game.)
“Year Zero” is a total marriage of the pop and gamer aesthetics that unlocks the rusty cages of the music industry and solves some key problems facing rock music as its cultural dominance dissolves into dust.
It’s easy for even Reznor appreciators to overlook this accomplishment, because “Year Zero” also works as pure pop. Composed mostly on a laptop and inspired by the Situationist hip-hop of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team, its 16 tracks reinvigorate Reznor’s most effective sonic tricks: surface noise, extreme dynamic shifts, dinosaur riffing and the slashes of prettiness that drive light into the hard stuff.
Reznor’s been picking at these elements forever, rearranging them, exploring their inner structures, breaking them apart.
He’s been criticized for being insular, but think of Reznor as Tolkien, not Timbaland, and the repetitions make sense. He’s building a world, and that world needs its own language, and language establishes itself through trial and error.
In his own universe
After the grim, hit-hungry perfectionism of the group’s previous album, 2005’s “With Teeth,” it’s great to hear Reznor sprawl out in his own universe again.
But to stop at the music is to miss what “Year Zero” accomplishes as a larger, ongoing work. In fact, it may be a mistake to even start with the music. Hard-core NIN fans and online game enthusiasts have been adding up the ARG’s clues to uncover its “X-Files"-like narrative, a compelling vision of a near-future afflicted by multiple calamities.
Grainy and hard to navigate, full of text and images so commonplace they feel real, these interlocking pages (executed by veteran game designers 42 Entertainment) don’t tell a story; they lock the participant into an experience that feels both personal and epic. That’s exactly what Reznor’s music does. Equal parts whisper and arena-sized punch, it immerses listeners into an emotional state that their own responses come to mirror.
The songs on “Year Zero,” each from the perspective of a character or characters already existent in the ARG, draw a connection between the music fan’s passionate identification with songs and the gamer’s experience of becoming someone else online.
Though it’s supposedly a leap that Reznor’s not writing about his own pain anymore, he still puts his gift for the ultra-personal to good use. The frantic first single, “Survivalism,” reveals the inner thoughts of a resistance leader; “Vessel” does the same for a religious fanatic; “The Good Soldier,” with its swaggering drum line beat, captures the reluctance of a military man.
Lyrics describing group experiences still circle back to the individual. Even the beautiful, cataclysmic closing suite, with its images of nuclear winter, focuses on a dying lover’s tender plea. Melodramatic on their own, Reznor’s lyrics gain believability when heard under the encompassing sway of the game.
Reznor has always been tuned into alternate realities, mostly those that occupy and distort the minds of average, uptight social outcasts. He emerged during the 1990s heyday of psychological rock, when fellow angsty boys Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were making generational anthems about sexual confusion, personal drift and the sorrows of the broken home.
A tech nerd with roots in meticulous synth pop instead of punk or metal, Reznor made screamingly intense music about repression and its consequences; his great themes were sadomasochism (literal and metaphorical) and mental disorder.
Personal to political
Whatever personal issues propelled Reznor toward this ugly subject matter, his genius in the studio made his obsessions blossom into art. The Nine Inch Nails sound quickly evolved from plain industrial rock to the satanic equivalent of the Beach Boys -- infinitely complex explorations of the way musical structures can mirror the ups and downs of an interior life.
On “Year Zero,” he’s reaching beyond his usual fascination with personal (or interpersonal) torment to confront group dynamics -- specifically, politics. But he’s still most skilled at evoking the way the mind works in isolation.
This is where the multitiered experience of “Year Zero” intersects with the worldview it presents to show how pop music can communicate in a new way. The isolated experience of politics is ideology -- the personal, even isolated, absorption of a set of beliefs. Embracing an ideology is a lot like playing an alternate reality game. You commit; you move where the rules lead; you risk failure if you doubt the path.
The usual model for political pop is to state ideas or conviction in an anthem or a ballad -- to foreground meaning over experience. But hard rock has always been more about body-shaking physical possession than words.
On “Year Zero,” Reznor attempts to explore the physical experience of political ideology -- how it feels to believe, or to rebel. His soldiers and subversives and faithful idiots speak in bromides, but the music, embedded with dissonance and sudden squalls of beauty, gives each character his own imperfect, powerful voice.
Factor in the listener’s experience of “Year Zero” on the Web and in community with other fans, and you have an event that bowls over the boundaries of the usual pop release.
Reznor promises to continue the “Year Zero” project into a new recording, and possibly a feature film. I hope he opts against that second option and sticks with more innovative forms.
Writing on the ARGoriented site unfiction.com, a theorist whose pseudonym is “Spacebass” coined the term “chaotic fiction” to describe the particular art of alternative reality gaming; such a phrase also fits music that strives to create a universe while staying open-ended enough for fans to find themselves within it.
At the very least, Trent Reznor is still creating chaotic rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s more than marketing; it’s pioneering art.
Nine Inch Nails
“Year Zero” (Nothing)