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, NIN.com. 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.
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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