I was initially skeptical about the whole crazy viral-apocalyptic-subversive-time-travel-guerilla marketing for Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails’ upcoming concept album. Their previous album was just ok, rehashing some riffs and some themes from the glorious The Fragile; and ole Trent Reznor, formerly the wiry ball-lightning with its finger on the jugular pulse of the MTV teenager’s cathartic rage, was assessed in his burly, bald new incarnation by certain critics (myself included) to have retreated from relevance into his own head. This new campaign of hidden messages left on USB drives in concert venue bathrooms was definitely a new direction, but it struck me as being a little too derivative of LOST’s vast peripheral storyline of fake tv ads, fake websites and lowbrow book tie-ins, not to mention older examples of the same thing going back through X-Files and Twin Peaks to Lovecraft and Borges. I just didn’t think poor Trent could pull it off.
Then I found the mp3 for My Violent Heart. I thrashed around my office a bit–at least, to the degree that my headphone tether would allow–and after that I started paying a little closer attention. By the time I came across artisresistance.com, I realized Trent really has an agenda going here, and he (and his marketing crew) have put a hell of a lot of effort into building that agenda into something with a fair amount of depth and complexity, something that will suck in fans, challenge them to think and work together, unify them, and at the same time maybe direct all their cathartic rage at something real.
I can’t believe how deep some of these clues have been hidden, and people find them anyway. Coded spectrograms tacked onto the ends of mp3s. Obscure literary and biblical references. Even a bit of actual, low-grade hacking.
The premise of this whole fragmented, chaotic narrative is some kind of temporal anomaly that has allowed pieces of data from a seriously fucked-up, drug-addled, post-apocalyptic future to filter backwards into the present day, forming a sort of parallel timeline which just happens to work as a disturbing, angry, empowering parable for our own. Trent is playing all sides here: terrorist, fanatic, warmonger, conscientious objecter, social revolutionary, spiritual leader. And he’s doing it in such a way that he doesn’t have to be some incredible storyteller–he just gives us the fragments, and lets our own socially-ingrained tendencies to narrative thread them all together for him.
So now I’m hooked. They just put the whole album up for streaming over at yearzero.nin.com. I’ve listened to it twice straight through, and I’m starting on a third.