For the last few months, NIN fans have cruised a massive network of websites that predict a future of government surveillance, enforced morality, and an overmedicated populace. The viral marketing campaign for Year Zero was a mash of every dystopian society ever dreamed up—not a single original thought to be found. Still, the idea of Trent Reznor creating a concept album worthy of such a buildup was intriguing. Riling up fear and loathing has always been his forte, with most songs pushing vague us-against-them scenarios. That sort of ambiguity did the trick ten years ago, but there's no excuse for unfocused anger now. Reznor, authority's longtime foe and a former resident of New Orleans, should be leading the pissed-off rock revolution. Yet here he is, rewriting the simplest of diatribes against religion, censorship, and complacency.
On Year Zero, he backs away from the funk dabbling on 2005's With Teeth, and disappears into the NIN catalogue—seething but flat, intricate but forgettable. The "noise" promised on the CD's packaging is of the knob-twiddling variety, as Reznor scribbles over tracks with buzzing static and squelchy electro doodles. The album is light on that other category of NIN songs—the gossamer interludes that are either heartbreaking or trite depending on how soft you are for Reznor's schtick. (I'll admit I'm mushy.)
If Year Zero reveals anything, it's that his music does little for people with a working knowledge of current events and a desire for sonic evolution. Reznor will always extend his hand to those seeking salvation in radio-friendly industrial music, and they'll always accept it, because they're only 15.
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