Nine Inch Nails

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      Year Zero (Interscope)

      It's amazing what getting clean can do for your sense of perspective. For the first time in, well, ever, recovering junkie Trent Reznor has produced a Nine Inch Nails album that isn't all about how messed-up its author is. For once, Reznor has channelled his angst outward, setting his sights on his homeland. The U.S. is an easy target these days, to be sure, but Year Zero isn't a screed about George W. Bush and his cronies. Instead, it imagines a dystopian America 15 years hence, a midnight-black vision of a nation that looks uncomfortably like the 2007 version, with a few extra steps to the right. Reznor paints an overtly Orwellian portrait of a society in a condition that resembles martial law, where Abu Ghraib–style horrors look like kindergarten games and government dictates come from somewhere higher up than the White House. ("I would never tell you anything that wasn't absolutely true, that hadn't come right from His mouth," Reznor whispers toward the end of "God Given", "and He wants me to tell you.")

      All this, Reznor seems to be warning his countrymen, could be theirs, if they keep letting Republicans steal elections. Oh, and then there's "The Warning", in which the extraterrestrials who have been watching everything unfold come down from the sky and offer this ultimatum: "You will change your ways and you will make amends/Or we will wipe this place clean." So maybe it's all just science fiction after all.

      Whatever else it might be, Year Zero is easily the most sonically compelling Nine Inch Nails outing since 1994's The Downward Spiral. Kicking off with the rock blitzkrieg of "Hyperpower!"–which sounds like a field recording from the Food Riots of 2019–and closing with the strangely uplifting, begging-for-mercy industrial gospel of "Zero-Sum", the disc covers a lot of ground. "The Beginning of the End" is an urgently thumping salvo of stadium rock strafed with smart-bomb detonations of guitar; "The Greater Good" is an end-of-days trip-hop lullaby, and "Another Version of the Truth" is a minor-key piano meditation that offers a brief respite from the otherwise relentless onslaught.

      With its palette of sonic-torture-device buzzes and clanks, Year Zero isn't always an easy listen, and its apocalypse-next lyrics don't make things any more pleasant. But, Reznor's ambition is undeniably impressive, especially when he applies it to something other than self-abasement.