The second Nine Inch Nails release in seven months begins with one of the hookiest, most anthemic songs Trent Reznor has composed in at least a decade and possibly longer. It ends with the most unfriendly and artistically audacious torrents of noise and emotional torment that the 52-year-old (!!) hellraiser from Mercer, Pennsylvania, has unleashed on record in his 28-year career. It sounds like what most of this year’s unending torrent of horrific news feels like.
One shouldn’t be surprised that an artist who’s always managed to find new ways to express otherwise recurring emotional themes and musical motifs managed to nail the social and cultural zeitgeist in a non-shallow manner. But 2013’s estimable grown-ass-man album Hesitation Marks found Reznor (assisted by Pino Palladino, Robin Finck, newly official bandmember/longtime collaborator Atticus Ross and others) still asserting his uncertainties but existing in relative peace, and exploring his dark places only to beat them back. That was 2013, though, and Agent Orange holds the White House now. Trent Reznor is personally stable by all accounts but obviously appalled by our sociopolitical climate.
Thus we have both ADD VIOLENCE and its equally furious preceding EP, Not The Actual Events. (Reznor stated that these works represented the first two of a trilogy, the final installment of which may drop before the year is out.) Upon hearing Not The Actual Events when it debuted around Christmas 2016, I thought to myself, “This record does not like you.” I retain that thought to describe ADD VIOLENCE, but the new release plays it tricky in a way its all-hell-all-the-time predecessor doesn’t.
Opener “Less Than” is so good, so emblematic of everything that’s always made NIN worth hearing but presented in a way that doesn’t feel remotely like a nostalgia trip, that if I were to pick a best song of 2017 as of this moment, I’d pick it with no hesitation. Reznor has adjusted his melodic instincts to correlate with his age so that the keys in which he sings and notes he selects never make him strain to sound young. He’s the same dude who was sanctified inside you in 1989, just way older and wiser. Menacingly jaunty synths give the song its melody and deceptively simple riffage brings muscle to the perfect chorus, as Reznor simultaneously adopts the voice of the disenfranchised Appalachia and Rust Belt that elected the president and rebukes their motivations as the petty rage they ultimately are.
If that song led any listeners to believe ADD VIOLENCE would be the more dancefloor-ready of the EPs released thus far, the haunted musings and spare beats on “The Lovers” and “This Isn’t The Place” quickly scuttle such assumptions. Though they’re followed by “Not Anymore,” a soft-loud industrial metal rager in the classic NIN mold, the impact of the two preceding songs is practically numbing in its desperation. “This Isn’t” is 65 percent instrumental and the predominant, recurring line of its four lyric sentences is “I thought we had more time.” As for “The Lovers,” it scuttles along with the unnerving rhythm of an insect crossing an otherwise spotless, immaculate floor, and whether Reznor is referencing Tarot when he says “into the arms of the lovers” or simply alluding to past loves is unclear. “Not Anymore” is probably the EP’s least substantial song, but it’s certainly cathartic and entertaining. (Think of not-great-but-fun ragers on previous NIN albums, like “Getting Smaller” or “Head Down,” and you’ll have a good idea of it.)
And then we’re left with the terrifying 12 minutes that comprise “The Background World.” Beginning as a moody soundscape of static, distorted piano and what sound like sampled or synthesized orchestral swells, backed by a hip-hop drum pattern with a slow BPM to match, it quickly introduces Reznor lyrics that hearken back to the explicitly political dystopia envisioned on Year Zero (which I maintain is NIN’s best album aside from The Downward Spiral, an opinion many surely think is bonkers). Then, the beat cuts out for a moment as Reznor asks, “Are you sure,” followed by “this is what you want?” to complete the phrase when the music returns and becomes considerably more forceful. Soon enough, it devolves into a loop that’d work as a sampled beat for a particularly broad-thinking rapper —except static keeps filling in the empty spaces around it, getting louder and louder. During the seven minutes that follow, the loop distorts more and more until it’s become pure noise, continues as such for a time, and then disappears with little warning.
In a Zane Lowe interview, Reznor apparently claimed that the songs on these EPs form a story when taken together, and that the 15 tracks that will exist upon the trilogy’s completion may be reconfigured into an album with unique takes on each tune. What exactly is that story? Not The Actual Events seems distinctly focused on the spread of something, with lyrics pointing to a plague–an infection affecting the mind as much as if not more so than the body. ADD VIOLENCE hints at much broader catastrophe: war, intolerant or escape-focused attitudes, the furthering of an inherently selfish national apathy. By the time “The Background World” rolls around, the song’s narrator appears to have realized they can’t elude the source of their fears, macro and micro alike, but simultaneously wonders if it’s too late to make any progress in reversing whatever’s wrong.
Listened to in tandem with its predecessor or on its own, ADD VIOLENCE stands as an important chapter in the career of an artist and group that, after nearly three decades, isn’t remotely obligated to create important chapters but does so regardless. It’s heartening to me to hear Trent Reznor, so often accused in the past of being overly simplistic and self-absorbed—sometimes quite accurately—in the pictures his music painted, engaging with the cultural and political world to create music that feels more necessary and more reflective of our damaged national character than many other records released this year.