(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)
Considering most musicians in their 40s tend to slow things down, Trent Reznor has been a busy boy. Coming from the man who once spent five years to release a follow-up album (the highly ambitious/anticipated double-disc mammoth The Fragile), and another six for its successor (2005’s With Teeth), the last two years for his band Nine Inch Nails have been some of the most creative and innovative in its career.
Reznor’s recent creative spur all started on the tour for NIN’s fifth studio album, the rather uninspired “With Teeth.” Desiring to record a bleak futuristic concept album to shed light on the United States’ current administration, Reznor created (or rather conjured up) Year Zero. Exorcizing his inner demons once again, “Zero” was a refreshing return to form for Reznor and would be the start of new day for NIN both musically and conceptually.
The sprawling 16-track “Zero” was significant not only for its message but also its delivery, primarily the extensive viral marketing campaign that backed the album’s official release and an organized Internet leak. While past NIN efforts showcased Reznor as a sonic mad scientist, constantly pushing the envelope of the industrial genre he helped start, “Zero” was a vehicle for Reznor the savvy businessman, or anti-businessman.
The concept of “Zero” was to include not only the album but also a record of remixes (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D), a possible feature length film, and now, according to Reznor, a television series all encompassing the shambled dystopia of Reznor’s future America. Reznor even came up with some creative methods for leaking the songs and portions of the album to diehard NIN fans – leaving mini USB memory cards chock full of MP3s and other “Year Zero” propaganda in the bathroom stalls at concert venues or treating frequent website visitors to snippets of “Zero.” Reznor has always treated fans to pleasant surprises.
“Year Zero” was the last official studio album on NIN’s former label, Interscope, fulfilling a long-standing frustrating contract and paving the way for complete musicalindependence. After releasing “Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D” Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other artists currently embracing the inevitable industry changes in how we acquire music with an Internet exclusive release of a 36-track suite of instrumental compositions entitled,Ghosts I-IV.
While initially coming out of left field (after all it was released just shy of a year after “Year Zero,” which was unexpected considering NIN’s last couple spaced out releases), the content of “Ghosts” and the methods used to release the album seemed inevitable choices.
For starters, “Ghosts” was a pet project Reznor was aching to do for many years but never could due to pressures from his label. A four-volume set comprised entirely of bizarre instrumental compositions, carefully paired with bleak photographs (included in a 40-page book) doesn’t exactly scream Billboard trendsetter. Artistically, however, “Ghosts” serves as a haven for Reznor to showcase his undisputed gift for taking ordinary sounds and taking them to extreme, undiscovered directions.
On past NIN efforts instrumental tracks were commonly used to bridge songs together, provide glimpses of grace amongst cuts rooted in chaos, and, in the case of The Downward Spiral’s “A Warm Place,” pay homage to a major influence, David Bowie (the song is a manipulated cover of a Bowie B-side, “Crystal Japan”). Many have also said that while Reznor continues to evolve his sound, his lyricism has always been an Achilles’ heel, often recycling the same dismal predictable themes.
“Ghosts” was no doubt marketed mainly to diehard NIN fans (36-tracks without a solid single to anchor it down isn’t exactly aiming for the mainstream). By allowing listeners to have a choice in how they acquire the album Reznor embraced the future of music distribution and did so with success. “Ghosts” was released in a number of formats ranging from a free nine-track sampler to an expansive limited edition vinyl, CD, and MP3 suite.
For digital music sampling wizards (and Reznor realizes that there are many out there) “Ghosts” was also made available in a number of different digital formats, allowing fans to take individual tracks from songs and remix the content to create their own unique compositions. While much of these methods were no doubt lifted from Radiohead’s In Rainbows pay-what-you-feel Internet stunt of last year, Reznor was clearly taking things to a higher level.
Last month Reznor surprised fans yet again with The Slip, a surprisingly low-budget, 10-song record blending messy, fast-paced garage rock with moody ambient ballads that was released 100% free to listeners at NIN.com. While “The Slip” isn’t as conceptually sophisticated as “Year Zero” or as groundbreaking as say Pretty Hate Machine or “The Downward Spiral,” it is a rough and fun rock record that not only gave Reznor a single (the catchy techno cut “Discipline”) to tour with but again proves that Reznor is currently enjoying the luxuries of his newfound creative spree. He even managed to produce Saul Williams‘ last album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, which was also made available via digital download.
For most established artists some people might argue for content over quantity, believing that it’s better to take time between masterpieces rather than unleash mediocre album after album. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor seems to have found a happy balance between the two. “Year Zero” was as innovative and interesting as NIN’s early records, “Ghosts I-IV” was the result of an idea that Reznor seems to have been dreaming up for quite some time, and “The Slip,” while not a masterpiece, is a nice taste of what Reznor has up his sleeve, served gratis to boot.
It’s hard to say what else Reznor is cooking up musically, since the past two records were released out of the blue. NIN is about to embark on a major U.S. tour, and Reznor has already spoken of his future plans for the “Year Zero” concept. Whether or not NIN’s current creative spree seems like an overload of more loud industrial rock, consider this: a veteran artist like Reznor could continue taking his time between records and still reap the benefits from a loyal fanbase, but instead he’s experimenting and treating the world to his art. Good or bad, that’s entirely up to the listener, but it’s hard to deny that at the age of 43 Reznor’s artistic inner demons are still hard at work and he remains one of the most innovative musicians working today.