Though he's semi-retired now, in 2007 it seemed like Trent Reznor would always have new things to itch his craw. On his then-new album, Year Zero, these things happen to be the United States government and RIAA. A concept album, Year Zero tells the (hypothetical) story of what will happen in the year 2022 if the U.S. government's rampant religious zealotism is not checked (apparently, Reznor thinks this will bring about the apocalypse). Despite the dark subject matter, Year Zero is one of the strongest, sexiest NIN releases ever, offering a bundle of danceable grooves. At the same time, though, it manages to also be one of Reznor’s more experimental releases. Either way, it’s a huge step up from the good, but tame, NIN-by-numbers of the 2005 comeback album With Teeth.
In a way, Year Zero is the real NIN comeback album. With Teeth was good enough in that it offered a few catchy singles, but it’s Year Zero which finds Reznor exploring new territory not only as a songwriter, but as an all-around entertainer. Furthermore, while With Teeth had flourishes of political outrage, such as on lead single “The Hand That Feeds,” Year Zero is completely dedicated to sticking it to the man.
Even before popping in the disc, Year Zero comes with a slew of backstory. In an effort to circumvent RIAA, Reznor went so far as to leak his new album piece by piece to fans at concerts via thumb drives. He eventually leaked the entire thing online for all to stream, which RIAA promptly, and idiotically, tried to shut down. Even Year Zero’s packaging thumbs its nose at the organization.
As with all major label releases, the album comes with an FBI warning dictating the illegality of file sharing. Like all the other FBI warnings stamped onto albums, it’s gaudy and obscures the artwork. But, right next to this label is another warning, this time from the “United States Bureau of Morality,” which reads, “Consuming or spreading this material may be deemed subversive by the United States Bureau of Morality. If you or someone you know has engaged in subversive acts or thoughts, call: 1-866-445-6580. BE A PATRIOT - BE AN INFORMER!” Sadly, that number no longer works. Anyway, the labels are removable so that one may see the back artwork of Year Zero as originally intended.
But enough with bashing RIAA; back to hating on the government. Year Zero opens with the instrumental “HYPERPOWER!”. The title is apt, as the militant/electronic grooves of the tune set the mood of the album while also rocking the heck out. Fans of the old, discordant NIN will love this one. But from all of this chaos comes the simple yet catchy drum track of the next song, “The Beginning of the End.”
Rocking and powerful, Reznor shows a flair for the dramatic with the opening lines, “Down on your knees, you’ll be left behind / This is the beginning.” The song further sets the Orwellian theme with lyrics describing an oppressive, fascist government. It’s beautifully paranoid. Near the end of the song comes the album’s first burst of computer noise -- a recurring sound on Year Zero -- symbolizing the album’s futuristic, technophobic elements.
Less than three minutes go by and “The Beginning of the End” segues into the album’s lead single, “Survivalism.” Boasting a weird army boot-stomper of a tongue-twisting chorus, “Survivalism” takes a few listens before its hooks really sink in. Reznor and his band of Nailers shout the chorus so hard that their words are almost obscured. But the rhythm of the shouting is too hypnotic to be ignored: “I got my propaganda / I got revisionism / I got my violence in high-def ultra-realism / All a part of this great nation / I got my fist / I got my plan / I got survivalism.” While the completely computer-generated instrumentation may turn off fans of live hard rock, “Survivalism” is one of the most infectious tracks on Year Zero.
After this trinity of rock and/or roll, the record shifts into groovier territory. Think The Downward Spiral’s “Piggy” spread out and funked up. First comes “The Good Soldier,” which shows the same sort of pseudo-free association shown long ago on Pretty Hate Machine’s “Down in It,” albeit not quite as hip-hop-esque. The groove gets darker on “Vessel,” and sexier on “Me, I’m Not.” Reznor cranks the bass and explores the space on this track. The focus turns away from what he’s saying and more towards how he’s saying it here, as Reznor’s voice mixes with a wall o’ reverb to generate a psychedelic dance-fest.
Year Zero temporarily picks up glam rock on the sarcastic “Capital G.” Reznor muses over how the simple push of a button can alter the course of life -- “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 on the television / Those motherfuckerss didn’t last too long ha ha" go the opening lines.
“My Violent Heart” brings back the loose beat of earlier songs, but merges it with some crazy noises for a new flavor. The track again reminds listeners that this is computer music through and through, and, on an instrumental level, hints at what's to come on the album. Later tracks like “The Warning,” in which aliens/angels try to dissuade Americans from their current self-destructive treatment of the environment, and “The Greater Good” hint at a violent backlash, but it’s not until “The Great Destroyer” that Year Zero really drops the Armageddon imagery full force.
Like most of the song names on the album, “The Great Destroyer” is a literal title. The lyrics aren’t quite clear regarding the destroyer’s identity, but there’s a strong indication from the rest of the album that it’s a power-mad American dictator or perhaps a terrorist.
“I hope they cannot see / the limitless potential / living inside of me / to murder everything,” says the antagonist before he reveals himself to be “the great destroyer.” The near-metal cry this madman gives out is followed by a lengthy breakdown made entirely of harsh computer bleeps, bloops and blips. All this digital freaking out sounds like a series of bombs detonating, wiping the United States off the face of the earth. It’s the most difficult listening portion of Year Zero, but also one of the coolest.
After this man-made Armageddon, the piano interlude of “Another Version of the Truth” comes on. The arrangement’s soft fuzz creates an image of aftermath, and should symbolize the end of the album. But a nuclear holocaust isn’t the only thing Reznor has in store for his characters -- there’s still the end of the whole world to address on tracks “In This Twilight,” in which the sun is about to explode, and “Zero-Sum,” in which Armageddon finally happens for realsies.
But these last two tracks feel tacked on. They’re not as musically interesting as the rest of Year Zero, and they force the story’s ending to drag. “Zero-Sum” even rips off the piano pattern from With Teeth’s “All the Love in the World.”
Outside of an overshot ending, Year Zero is an invigorating piece of electronic music. While it may test the patience of casual NIN fans, the more dedicated should be pleased to see their beloved Reznor once again pissed off and pushing forward. After overcoming drugs and poor record sales, Reznor has once again found his rhythm and delivered another brilliant album. Year Zero is not only the strongest NIN release of the last 20 years, it’s also one of the most righteous political pieces of art in that same span of time.