Leave it to Trent Reznor - one of the few musicians who probably doesn't need to hype his art by this point - to trump every other viral marketer with the promotional campaign for the new Nine Inch Nails album, Year Zero. Besides leaking MP3s via USB drives left on bathroom floors, operatives from the NIN camp dreamed up a tangled series of Web sites full of conspiracy theories and freakish multimedia to introduce fans to Reznor's vision of the year 2022: a cultural and political wasteland full of religious atrocities, mind-controlling drugs, catastrophic wars and government corruption. (In a nutshell, combine George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.) With lyrics based on these conceits - and healthy doses of apocalyptic imagery and bitter vengeance thrown in for good measure -- Zero's tone naturally leans toward the bleak and nihilistic. This is somewhat of a departure from 2005's With Teeth, an album on which Reznor finally started questioning his demons instead of letting them control him. It's clear that this existential pondering didn't solve much, and so Reznor now wants answers - and, more important, action. In fact, Zero's lyrics contain a subtle perspective shift: Instead of turning his anger inward, Reznor channels his ire and scorn at outsiders - namely the government and its clueless leaders (gee, wonder who the song "Capital G" is about?) and other zealots.
The music mirrors this urgency. From a sonic perspective, it's simply outstanding -- especially the electronic elements, which largely take cues from chunky new-wave funkiness ("Capital G") and swampy trip-hop ("Me I'm Not"). Better yet is the loopy pop track "God Given" -- whose perforated beeps and staticky industrial squelches sound like LCD Soundsystem covering Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" -- and "The Great Destroyer," which features what sounds like an Atari console going haywire and short-circuiting. Plenty of raw, brazen metallic aggression matches this crystalline programming note for note; the brief opener "Hyperpower" barks and snarls like a smoky heavy-metal monster, while the brittle piano instrumental "Another Version of the Truth" builds like the best Mogwai dull roar.
Reznor is also brilliant, of course, because Year Zero stands on its own as an artistic achievement, apart from its mythology. But it's a dense, gnarled record whose songs aren't immediately accessible, matching the challenging topics its lyrics tackle. As a consequence, the record is perhaps not as easy to relate to on a personal or emotional level as other NIN discs - although in light of the album's content and genesis, maybe the alienation and distance is purely intentional, just another part of Reznor's grand plan to conflate art and life. - Annie Zaleski