catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 9 :: 2007.05.04 — 2007.05.18


Transforming Reznor

After Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails released his toothless album With Teeth in 2005, I thought he was headed for the downward spiral of mediocrity.  There were some nice moments, but mostly it seemed like the artist had resigned himself to making radio singles about his predictable uncertainty and despair.  The problem was that there was no longer any real despair in the music.  Not that I’d wish despair on any artist, but Reznor’s effort in 2005 couldn’t match the drama of his own self-destruction in the mid to late 90s.  Though he clearly was searching in With Teeth, I don’t think he found anything to replace the motivating power of the anguish so clearly communicated in Broken, the Downward Spiral and The Fragile.  But Reznor’s newest release, Year Zero seems to mark a new beginning for the artist. 

The new album reflects Reznor’s maturity, moving beyond the over-bearing self-reflection and professed alienation of previous work.  Reznor’s new music is outwardly focused, is bent on social change.  If Reznor was finding his feet in With Teeth, he has built a sturdy platform for himself with Year Zero in order to move others with his art.

Year Zero looks ahead to a time where human greed, media technology, propaganda, military and political power intermingle dangerously with moral pronouncements passed off as the words of God Himself.  In other words, Year Zero is about our current situation.  It’s unusual for Reznor to talk so openly about current events.  He typically dives deep into his own soul.  But here Reznor takes the tactic of distancing his own convictions from the characters he portrays in the album.  When he sings these words in the song “Capital G”, it is clear that Reznor is not condoning such thoughts:

I pushed a button and elected him to office and a
He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb
You pushed a button and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn’t last too long ha ha
I’m sick of hearing bout the haves and the have nots
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we’ve been doing things is
The more we let you have the less that I’ll be keeping for me

In the past, Reznor seemed to go along with the will to power, celebrating the morph of man into god.  But now when he says “I am becoming something else.  I am a turning into God”, we get the feeling that it’s not a good thing.

God has always been a very real force in Reznor’s albums.  Often God is the power that Reznor is fighting against.  God is the imposing hand that comes down from the sky to hold the singer down.  This is what we hear in the 1999 NIN release The Fragile:

The clouds will part and the sky cracks open
And god himself will reach his fucking arm through
Just to push you down, just to hold you down
Stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss
And it’s hard to believe it could come down to this
Back at the beginning, sinking, spinning.

Knowing the history of Reznor’s strained relationship with God then, it is a bit striking that the cover image for Year Zero depicts a large hand coming down from the sky.  In “The Warning” the singer gives an account of this event:

Some say it was a warning, some say it’s a sign
I was standing right there when it came down from the sky
The way it spoke to us, you felt it inside
Said it was up to us, up to us to decide
“you’ve become a virus killing off his host
we been watching you with all of our eyes…
we have come to intervene
you will change your ways and you will make amends
or we will wipe this place clean”…your time is ticking away

At the end of the album, Reznor’s tone expands on the sincerity of “The Warning” as he asks God to have mercy “on our dirty little hearts”.  God is no longer something the singer is fighting against.  God is now the only hope for those caught up in an ongoing war where we are unsure of “what we’re fighting for or who we even are anymore” (“The Good Soldier”).

Some have suggested that Year Zero is a political album.  But Reznor is doing more than criticizing political parties or religious groups.  In some ways, Reznor is doing what he always does: digging deep until he finds the root of the problem, once again, in the darkness of the human heart.  Though the artist explored his own particular soul in years past, he is now displaying the social implications of our will to usurp the authority of God.

Does Trent Reznor know he’s doing this?  I think he might.  In an interview with Uncut magazine, Reznor talks about his recovery from addiction and self-destructive behavior and attributes the change in his aesthetic direction to none other than Johnny Cash, a guy who knew something about self-destruction…and salvation:

When I saw [Johnny Cash’s music video version of the NIN song “Hurt”] the power and beauty of music struck me in a really profound way.  I was at a point in my life when I was really unsure if I was any good or if I had anything to say.  The song came out of a really ugly corner of my mind and turned into something with a frail beauty.  And then several years later an icon from a completely different world takes the song and juxtaposes himself into it in a way that seems more powerful to me than my own version.  I was flattered as an artist and as a human being they could do that with my song.  And it came at a very insecure time in my life and it felt like a nudge and boost and a hug from God.  It said ‘everything’s OK and the world is bigger than what’s just in my head.’

It is certainly a thrilling prospect that Reznor might apply his remarkable engineering skills and creative use of sound to a spiritual project akin to that of Johnny Cash.  I eagerly anticipate the day when such musical ‘hugs from God’  come from this skillful artist of sonic textures and digital music technology and hope that Year Zero is indeed the beginning of a new age for NIN and brighter days ahead for Trent Reznor.

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