America is reborn in 2022. A series of attacks and disasters have led to a global rebranding. Previous civil liberties have been suspended in the interest of survival. The Bureau of Morality ensures citizens are in lockstep with the current message and agenda. The government is now a Christian theocracy in partnership with the First Evangelical Church of Plano. Water supplies have been treated with a drug to ensure immunity to biological agents as well as complicity with the new order.
Welcome to Year Zero.
Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
Released April 17, 2007 via Interscope Records
My Favorite Tracks – My Violent Heart, Capital G, The Beginning Of The End
The introduction is a dystopian fantasy, of course. This work of fiction, composed in 2006 and released in early 2007, is simply the figment of Trent Reznor’s imagination. Thankfully the world we enter in 2022, the fabled “year zero” of this album, looks nothing like the hellscape depicted on the record. (…)
Year Zero was released into the world in spurts with a viral campaign to distribute digital music files on USB drives in random locations. While fans ate up the media, the Recording Industry Association of America did not and began issuing cease and desist orders to people who were uploading the songs. They did this even while noting that the record label Interscope was on board with Reznor’s ideas and fully promoted the effort.
The album promotion did not stop with this viral distribution. An entire subsection of the Nine Inch Nails website was dedicated to lore about the story behind the new album, and a phone number on an album insert featured a faux message from the Bureau of Morality. A web-based “detective” game would also see release over a few months that provided a great deal of storyline for the events of 2022/Year Zero.
The lore and message of Year Zero can be (and has been) studied extensively. At the end of the day though, this is a recorded album of music and is also deserving of evaluation on those merits.
The album remains in the general realm of industrial rock that Nine Inch Nails had made a pioneering career of. This record would depart from its more accessible predecessor With Teeth by incorporating more electronic and what has been termed “digital hardcore” elements. Even for an unconventional act like Nine Inch Nails, the songs stand apart from others in the catalog.
Though the record features 16 tracks, the runtime is kept just over an hour and only one song breaks the 5-minute mark. The songs are lean and get to the point, even when invoking atmosphere and instrumental exposition rather than communicating a direct lyrical message. It’s a strange balance of concise music and extended passages that somehow work to elevate the work well above standard fare.
While some songs provide atmosphere, others stand out as highlight tracks. The Beginning Of The End, Survivalism, and Capital G all invoke their own individual meanings outside the context of Year Zero’s themes. The latter two especially stand out as real-world influences on this dystopian nightmare. It isn’t hard to make the links between 2007 political discourse and these tracks, and especially today both are ever-present themes in how things have wound up.
As a musical document, Year Zero is a standout effort from Nine Inch Nails. Electronic soundscapes give shape to these disturbing themes of fascist government control and the resistance fighting it. The album requires a degree of attention above and beyond casual music enjoyment, but this has long been the case with Nine Inch Nails. It is, in my canon, one of the band’s best records.
It is a bit challenging to access the themes and lore provided in supplemental material through these songs but the overarching story is still present. Songs like Survivalism and Capital G highlight the base greed and selfishness that brought about this grotesque future, while The Good Soldier and My Violent Heart question the status quo and establish a resistance. Something cataclysmic happens toward the end in the album’s final tracks In This Twilight and Zero-Sum. Whatever happened to this timeline, it was not a happy ending.
While this record is turning 15 this year, there is still a trove of information about the story behind Year Zero. The nin.wiki compiles a great deal of info taken from pre-release materials as well as the web game. Though incomplete, it appears that America and the world resets on 2022 to start a new age. Year Zero does not last very long as a mysterious Presence, thought to have been a drug-induced hallucination, appears over Washington DC and heralds the apparent end of the world. The album and supplemental products tell a tale of the heavy-handed government and the various resistance factions that pop up. One group attempts to send data back in time to warn people in 2007 of the coming problems. This message is symbolized by the instrumental Another Version Of The Truth.
Of course reality is not in line with the nightmare portrayed on Year Zero. But how far away really is it? We have not adopted a theocratic government in America, though many are still trying to make that happen. It might be year zero here, but there certainly is a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to be reversing itself.
I don’t have real answers to those kind of questions. I have little to no role to play in whatever might be unfolding, here in the US and in the world at large. While I don’t really expect a pair of ghostly hands to appear over the White House and end the world next month, I can’t act like I don’t see frightening real-world prospects that parallel the themes of Year Zero. The course of the world isn’t looking great, with pandemics, disasters and bitter arguments over how to handle it instead of any real action.
Year Zero the album is a landmark release from Nine Inch Nails. Its inventive viral distribution techniques captured the attention of many and the music behind the campaign went on to be considered among the group’s best by many. Year Zero the concept, however, is a much different issue that seems to be scarily playing out in front of us in some form or another.