Music News

Nine Inch Nails Truly Joins the Free Download Revolution

In a recent Playlist review, I complained about the frequency with which music-scene observers equated the Nine Inch Nails set Ghosts I-IV with Radiohead's In Rainbows during discussions about major artists releasing material for free or at radically reduced rates online -- my point being that Ghosts constitutes a series of disposable studio doodles and the like, while Rainbows qualifies as a major new work. Little did I know that NIN's Trent Reznor had a bolder plan in mind. At 12:01 a.m. Pacific on May 5, he made a new recording, entitled The Slip, available for free download at his group's website, Better yet, The Slip is a real NIN album, not just a compendium of leftover material that didn't deserve the hype that accompanied its arrival.

For me, the process of procuring The Slip went quite smoothly overall. When I tried to log on, at about 8:30 a.m. Mountain, the site was apparently jammed; it took me several tries and about ten minutes. Once I was in, however, a link quickly took me to a page that asked only that I enter my e-mail address. (A second page on the NIN site allows users to send copies of the album to three friends.) About fifteen minutes later, a message with another link appeared in my mailbox, and ten minutes or so after that, I was listening to Reznor's latest.

Admittedly, the first song -- "999,999," an instrumental snippet whose title recalled the numerical labels placed on the Ghost cuts -- caused my heart to sink. But I was reassured less than ninety seconds later with "1,000,000," the logically monikered next effort, a slammer powered by a powerful synth line and some biting singing from Reznor. Sure, the number bears a strong resemblance to "The Hand That Feeds," from 2005's With Teeth -- but since that was the earlier disc's best tune, Reznor's choice of familiar self-inspiration certainly could have been worse.

These cuts are followed by "Letting You," a rousing distortion-fest; the slyer, sparer "Discipline"; the mid-tempo "Echoplex," in which Reznor intones, "I see the hell you put yourself through"; the clanky, industrial throwback "Head Down"; and "Lights in the Sky," a dour, piano-driven pace-changer. The next two efforts are disappointing in comparison: "Corona Radiata" and "The Four of Us Are Dying" follow a Ghost-like instrumental formula. But the concluding "Demon Seed" sprouts into something intriguing, with Reznor using a variety of vocal effects over the course of a track marked by dynamic shifts, dense construction and a palpable sense of passion.

At first listen, The Slip doesn't seem like a musical masterstroke on par with In Rainbows, which was among 2007's finest offerings. Instead, it's a solid, mostly enjoyable late-period NIN recording that many Reznor fans would see as worth the standard purchase price. By making it available for free, then, Reznor is giving his supporters a genuine present, as opposed to the dubious gift Ghosts represented. So go ahead and mention Reznor among the music world's downloading revolutionaries. As of this writing, he's earned such a designation. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts