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Review: Nine Inch Nails’ Not the Actual Events Is a Good Sign for What’s to Come in 2017

“Yes … everyone seems to be asleep,” Trent Reznor whispers at the opening of the ostentatiously-titled “Dear World,” the second song on the new Nine Inch Nails EP, his voice digitally teased like the anodyne textbot in Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” The line returns at the end of the song as a kind of provocation: Even the most loyal Nine Inch Nails apologist might consider whether such gestures might not have been better left in the ‘90s, where they felt more essential to the times. Today’s listeners have Echo Dots in their homes to bleat similarly toneless directives. Shouldn’t Reznor be able to plump deeper than this Palahniukian mumbo-jumbo fifty-one years into his life, nearly thirty years into his career, on the other side of a visionary, definitively mature stint soundtracking films?

But as the song wears on, something approaching self-awareness begins to reveal itself through a new sense of high-dramatic extroversion. This is not the filter-less, flagellating Reznor of old, purging himself on record as on 1994’s The Downward Spiral and 1999’s The Fragile. Here, he’s a veteran Hamlet, donning the cape and snatching up the skull once again, but by now, he knows the cues well. The outlook here feels more measured and removed. That’s not to say that NIN is shamelessly retreading old territory on Not the Actual Events—just that they have a focused, well-reasoned idea of what the project is designed to do.

Reznor and now-diehard collaborator Atticus Ross (currently the band’s only other member) are working as they do when writing for film. They’re not exorcising personal trauma open-endedly, as Reznor did on the band’s best-known work—they’re painting more universal impressions in broad, dissipated strokes. On any self-respecting NIN release, Reznor always finds some reason to justify razing modern civilization, but on Not the Actual Events—one of the first definitively post-Trump projects from a major musical artist—his argument feels more convincing than ever. “It is coming, and you didn’t even notice,” Reznor murmurs hoarsely, mentioning a “trajectory in decline,” chastising both himself and a world he doesn’t “recognize anymore.” One can’t help but think: Same, man. 

Not the Actual Events is probably the grimiest Nine Inch Nails release since The FragileRather than running the gamut between overdriven steamrolling and receding, glitchy ambience as on most of the work Reznor loosed between 1994 and 2008, the EP realizes a specific, portentous mood from several equivalent angles. Even for the band who made surveillance-state rock opera Year Zero, this is unusually theatrical, broad-stroke music. Its most striking song, “She’s Gone,” is driven by a spectral timpani tattoo, recalling something the undead pirate crew in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel might bang out from the poop deck. A close reference point for Reznor’s vocal delivery in the verses is Blood Money-era Tom Waits, and Mariqueen Maandig’s groaned, cloying chorus finds the overlap point between grindcore and “The Monster Mash.” This sounds like a disaster waiting to happenNIN turned goth-Plastic Ono Bandbut, somehow, it is as playful as it is ominous, transportive rather than kitschy. Much like the other four songs on the EP, it’s a huge, somewhat cartoonish piece of music forming a logical and controlled simulacrum of the contemporary themes it speaks to: self-denial, bull-headedness, greed, and chaoshorrifying or glorious, always inevitable.

A five-song EP might feel slight for NIN, regents of the double-or-quadruple-album. But the band has been given to meaningful concision once before: Not the Actual Events bears some similarities to 1992 mini-LP Broken, by embracing a fuzzier, scrappier sonic landscape than the album that preceded it, and factoring in something approaching the blues. On EP highlight “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)” Reznor edges toward stoner metal with a riff that sounds like a decelerated permutation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by way of Dave Navarro. The lyrics fit the Cobain reference point well, focusing on alienation and self-hatred, and burning the whole world down in the wake of a storm of locusts—standard Trent stuff, and what millions of people in this country feel when they read about the president-elect’s newest cabinet appointment. It all works pretty well. Reznor elevates his droning riff with the help of sneering, tape-echo-drowned speak-song—a fresh device for him.

As a succinct document of the gymnastics he and Ross are capable of, Not the Actual Events is a brief but impressive audition tape. It’s hard to think of another noted studio nut who could pull off feats like smelting the dazzling electrofunk arpeggiator-Tetris of “Dear World”—catnip for “Closer” fans—down into a rippling pond of delay, or reducing unforgiving, Grohl-driven fastball “The Idea of You” into yowling sonic booms. It’s a hopeful omen for a fertile 2017, in which Nine Inch Nails, by Reznor’s account, is slated to release “two new major works.” With Ross’s help, Reznor has been able to expand the library of styles he can compress and tease out of recognition. If there’s any time Nine Inch Nails might be poised to pull off two whole non-tedious releases in one year, it’s now.