An Inspired Warning
Most would argue The Downward Spiral is not only the most successful album of the Nine Inch Nails catalog, but also Trent Reznor’s most innovative achievement. In fourteen eruptive tracks, the introspective narrative of a man’s suffering unravels to its inevitable end. Thirteen years later, Reznor’s Year Zero applies this same treatment to a much grander subject — all of humanity.
Year Zero is a modern morality play warning us our “greed, self-importance and [our] arrogance” will lead to our own destruction (“The Warning”). Further developed by an elaborate Alternate Reality Game (ARG) consisting of phone messages, emails, Web sites, and guerilla art, Year Zero tells the story of a government turned fascist via the above vices, its campaign to subdue the general population, and the revolutionaries who fight to destroy it. Although the revolution is successful, the victory is inconsequential. It is too late to save the environment and the planet can no longer support human life. Earth becomes a wasteland. Everyone dies.
As a follow-up to With Teeth — the diverse, if cursory, litmus test of Reznor’s abilities as a sober artist — Year Zero is a solid return to the craftsmanship for which Reznor is known, not just of song, but of the album. Ranging from a smooth, bass-driven groove of a dance track (“The Good Soldier,” “Capital G,”) to a beat-your-brains-out industrial scream-and-stomp (“Vessel,” “God Given,” “Meet Your Master,”) to the lullaby whisper of the end (“Another Version of the Truth,” “In This Twilight,” “Zero Sum,”) all share a common aesthetic, binding them together. Any of these songs would seem out of place on any other Nine Inch Nails album. They are at home only among themselves.
Though none of the sounds are new for Reznor, they are infused with a fresh noise and chaos, expressing his theme with both sound and lyrics. His vocals are given a vibe and flow not before heard, causing the lyrics to permeate the songs.
The success of Year Zero is twofold. As a work unto itself, it is an ambitious project that achieves its goals through intelligent and meticulous execution. As an album in the free market desert, it’s a refreshing oasis.