Now here’s something interesting. After NIN’s ‘resurgence’ of sorts on 2005’s “With Teeth” comes “Year Zero,” a concept album centering on Reznor’s critique of US government policy and a vision of a ruined world set in the near future of 2022, which seems pretty close around the corner now and nicely aligned with, say, halfway through a second term of a hypothetically catastrophically imbecilic and reckless president. Maybe Reznor knew something…
The album artwork juxtaposes a bible and a gun; a picturesque suburban town with hill-cresting church and a decrepit slum on the edge of a diseased stream in an industrial wasteland with smoke-stack factories on the horizon.
The album opens with a kind of martial beat that devolves into noise suggestive of screams and gunfire, like something from an Einstürzende Neubauten record, then progresses to the powerful and catchy “The Beginning of the End” which gains momentum and force as it develops the opening frames of the picture of a society sliding into annihilation.
“Survivalism” rockets along with a brusque fist-in-the-face pace, the unapologetic narrator-singer justifying the senseless depletion and harvesting of mother nature.
“The Good Soldier” could almost be a U2 song except for the fact it’s talking about a bombed out urban war-zone littered with corpses, and could be understood as a kind of “Masters of War” for the post-grunge generation.
“Vessel” and “Me, I’m Not” could just as easily be about addiction as a way to hide from reality and pain as they could be about Western society’s addiction to consumerism, entertainment, comfort and avoidance of reality. Either way, “Year Zero” is about the inevitable crash and come-down, the terrible hangover when the rent comes due.
“Capital G” is somewhat terrifying in its prescience, given all this dangerous juvenile talk of buttons this week: “I pushed a button and elected him to office and he pushed a button and it dropped a bomb.” The track marches arrogantly like a brazen distorted Goldfrapp hit.
“My Violent Heart” seems a mix of apology for human flaws, self-denigration for those same flaws, and a sneering domineering superiority.
“The Warning” suggests themes of condemnation and judgment of a society intent on short-term satisfaction at the cost of its own damnation, and the promise that “We have come to intervene / You will change your ways and you will make amends / Or we will wipe this place clean” could be the guiding reset of ancient alien guardians, the war cry of rising militias, or the patriarchal vengeance of old testament gods. While the guitar work here is not a million miles away from typical Reznor signature style, it’s illustrative of this album’s tonal qualities in that, familiar though it may be in some respects, it’s still fresh, new-sounding, and incredibly tasty.
I said earlier that “The Good Soldier” could almost be a U2 song, and here we have another Bono-esque number: compare “God Given” and its vocal meter, rhythm and tone with U2’s “Elevation.” It’s actually striking. Though Bono does not opt to sing industrially charged numbers in the fictional narrative voice of a racist and puritanical christian zealot.
“Meet Your Master” continues the album’s recurring theme of revolution and insurgence:
“We’ve heard enough from you now
We’ve heard everything
We’re going to play a new game
You’ll put on this blindfold
You’ll do what we tell you
You’ll do as you’re told
Used to be the leader
Now comes the time to serve
Maybe we show some mercy
Maybe you get what you deserve
Come on down my friend
It’s time to meet your master
You’ve left quite a mess here
Under your stewardship.”
“The Greater Good” floats in a kind of sound texture we haven’t heard anything quite like since “Downward Spiral,” and the song is theorized to be one of assimilation under the new Year Zero government. “The Greater Good” is counterpointed by “The Great Destroyer,” possibly the voice of an insurgent against the Year Zero government, but could equally be a metaphor for generalized rage against the injustices of a government intent on deepening brutal inequalities. The song degenerates into a satisfying drum beat cacophony before the somber instrumental “Another Version of the Truth” holds the album in suspended tension until the final two tracks close the project out.
“In this twilight” sees the singer watching a final sunset, hair full of ashes, and I’m reminded of British folksinger Ian Campbell’s “The Sun Is Burning.” Again I get the odd feeling Reznor has somehow taken on the mantle of a kind of alternative rock folksinger, warped by the industrial grunge nuclear blast.
The final track on the album, “Zero-sum,” is an indictment of the species in toto, in its perpetual procrastination of taking action to avert the impending catastrophe, the justifications, the hiding from reality. The calm spoken word delivery behind the wall of fuzz and distortion recalls the title track from “The Downward Spiral,” that wrought meditation of suicide (“he couldn’t believe how easy it was – he put the gun into his face – so much blood for such a tiny little hole – problems do have solutions you know”), yet this time it’s not a single suicide but the literal suicide of the entire species hurtling in utter blind ineptitude and mindlessness into the chasm of its own extinction. Trent closes out the album with the melodic refrain:
“Shame on us
Doomed from the start
May God have mercy
On our dirty little hearts
Shame on us
For all we’ve done
And all we ever were
Just zeros and ones”