On the seventh track of industrial rock pioneers Nine Inch Nails’ album Year Zero, there’s a despondent yet dance-y track called ‘Capital G’, which opens with the lyrics, “I pushed a button and elected him to office and a/He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb.”
And just like that the project’s founder and mainman Trent Reznor made a centrepiece to one of American music’s most relevant, prophetic concept albums to date. Released on 17 April 2007, the meticulously crafted, sonically insane Year Zero completed a decade last month and remains ever-so important a listen.
The dystopian future shown in the year 2022 was created by Reznor as the main concept for Year Zero, something that was born out of the George W Bush presidency (which many fans pointed out was the subject of ‘Capital G’) in some ways. Reznor noted in a preface to the album, “If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you’ll have an idea of the backdrop. The world has reached the breaking point — politically, spiritually and ecologically.”
The 16-track album arrived two years after With Teeth, which was widely regarded as the NIN comeback album. While With Teeth had songs like ‘Every Day Is Exactly The Same’ and ‘The Hand That Feeds’ that radio stations readily threw into heavy rotation, you could tell that Year Zero was one of his most thought-out, intricately promoted albums.
Reznor and his team, which included Rob Sheridan, created an alternate reality game that tied in with the music of Year Zero, sending fans on a treasure hunt of sorts with cryptic messages hidden on websites, phone numbers, lithographs and stashed away USB drives at venues on tour. They all linked to some music or the other, and there were codes and hints aplenty on the album itself, leading (attentive and nerdy) listeners into a world that includes organisations, a church, pharmaceutical conglomerates and a lot more to wrap one’s head around.
Teaming up with 42 Entertainment, who created an alternate reality game to preface the release of the hotly anticipated Halo 2 video game, Reznor intended this Year Zero universe to be anything but a marketing move to promote the music. There’s obvious influence from the earliest creators of dystopian fiction – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – especially in the use of institutions such as the “Bureau of Morality” and “First Evangelical Churhc of Plano” in Year 0, named to indicate that America has been reborn. The only people fighting the powers that be are the “Solutions Backwards Initiative”, who find a way to send information back in time.
Presumably a vehicle and a soundtrack to that bleak future is NIN’s elastic beats, spectral synth, whirring noises and so much more littered, taped and stuck together on Year Zero, which barely has a dull moment. It’s robotic, but it’s angry – a juxtaposition that only Reznor knows how to perfectly present. From the hard-hitting lead single ‘Survivalism’ to the haunting, seething ‘Me, I’m Not’ and the more pumped-up ‘God Given’ and ‘Meet Your Master’, the album traverses dark territory but through NIN’s highly polished production filters.
So when you’ve got an hour and three minutes and a mind that’s ready to attentively listen to music, revisit Year Zero today and you’ll still hear something you probably didn’t hear before. We may not have got the Year Zero TV series or the movie that Reznor had apparently pitched (and presumably failed to convince studio suits about), but the fiction year of 2022 is just five years away and with Donald Trump in power, we might just see something very close.