"Year Zero," Nine Inch Nails
I may be going out on a limb here, but I still think the appeal of music is primarily musical. Crazy, I know, but when you come across an album whose arrival is as densely loaded with extra-musical mumbo jumbo as "Year Zero's" is you wonder whether Nine Inch Nails main man Trent Reznor has forgotten such an obvious point. In case you haven't been paying attention -- and kudos to you if you haven't -- "Year Zero" is hitting stores on the back of one of the most complex and creative viral marketing schemes ever conceived. USB drives containing songs from the album were found in bathrooms, cryptic Web sites popped up detailing "Year Zero's" dystopian story line (it's a concept album), spectrogram analysis of leaked tracks revealed phone numbers to call to overhear faux wiretaps, and on and on. For the diehards who sniffed out every clue and solved every puzzle, perhaps "Year Zero" feels like a worthy reward for months of hard work. For those less invested in the album, it's hard not to imagine how it will come across as anything other than an admirable bore.
The problem with "Year Zero," as with so many concept albums before it, is twofold: First, the story is nearly impossible to deduce from the lyrics. Reznor relies on ill-defined pronouns instead of fully formed characters, and allusion and suggestion are substituted for any actual action. It's as if he tried to tell a story using only chapter headings. Second, there are far too many tracks, such as "Me, I'm Not" and "God Given," that function as mood pieces. And what's the point of a mood piece when it's never clear what that mood is supposed to be? What's more, a lot of these songs are only barely distinguishable from one another, featuring as they do a preponderance of similar super-enunciated, metronomic vocals and inert clattering rhythms overlaid with rhythmic buzzes and beeps that never quite coalesce into hooks. Nothing on the album approaches the sleek rush of the band's 2005 hit single "Hand That Feeds" or the visceral crunch of past NIN classics such as "Head Like a Hole." Reznor's best music has always seemed to come straight from his own troubled heart -- his struggles with depression and addiction are well documented -- but "Year Zero's" music is strangely bloodless. In trying fit the music into a rickety narrative framework, Reznor has robbed it of its life.
But even lifeless Nine Inch Nails can still be an interesting listen. The sheer level of creativity on display in "Year Zero" is admittedly impressive. The crunching, buzzing guitars (at least that's what I think they are; the sounds on the album are electronically treated to the degree that it's almost impossible to know what's what) of tracks like "Vessel" and "The Good Soldier" meld with static-y swoops, burbling glitches and pistonlike drumming into rigidly funky compositions. Softer tracks like "The Greater Good" and the instrumental "Another Version of the Truth" even achieve a sort of brutally efficient grandeur. And you can't accuse Reznor of laziness: Every song on the album is carefully thought through, and there isn't an inch of sonic space that hasn't been painstakingly decorated. But despite Reznor's efforts -- and sadly appropriate, considering the album's themes -- the strongest emotion "Year Zero" is likely to inspire is apathy.
Favorite track: "The Good Soldier"
"The Time Has Come," Anne Briggs
And now for something completely different. Anne Briggs' gorgeous, pastoral music is about as far away from Nine Inch Nails' harsh mechanical sounds as is humanly possible. I don't normally review reissues, but Briggs' 1971 album of English folk comes off as so vibrant and spirited that it doesn't feel old so much as timeless. Much of that has to do with Briggs' voice: clear and silvery, but with a lovely waver that suggests just enough vulnerability to keep its beauty from being intimidating. Briggs was only in her late 20s when she recorded these sparkling acoustic songs about sparrows, Jack Frost and the Sandman, but she dropped out of the music scene almost completely a couple of years later. Listening to this album drives home just how much of a shame Briggs' continued absence is for folk lovers. The ability to make music that sounds simultaneously so fundamental and so fresh is a rare thing. But in a strange way, Briggs' withdrawal makes a certain kind of sense. It's almost easier to believe that "The Time Has Come" was made by a spirit rather than by a living, breathing person.
Favorite track: "The Time Has Come"
-- David Marchese