Trent Reznor has never trafficked in sweetness and light. Over the years, he's acquainted a few million depressed teenagers with dozens of variations of hell on earth, and - surprise, surprise - Year Zero certainly doesn't represent a brightening of his bleak vision. It does, however, fuck with the formula.
Instead of employing the usual tortured solipsism, this time around Reznor treats his sad minions to a doomy rundown of what the world will be like in 2022. Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture. The U.S. has morphed into a religious dictatorship, ultra-violence and anomie are everywhere, and the environment is poisoned to the point that the possibility of eco-rejuvenation is remote at best. To put it another way: It's not the sort of stuff the kids are apt to crank after acing an algebra test or ripping open an acceptance letter from Yale.
But it is potent. Even "Hyperpower!," the martial instrumental track that frames the CD, succeeds in creating a comic-book-style sense of dread with looped, otherworldly screaming and a thin, metallic guitar part that's guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Some will argue that when Reznor isn't pillaging his past achievements, he's borrowing heavily from a who's who of scarifying post-punkers (Killing Joke, Ministry, Suicide, DAF, Nurse with Wound and Joy Division all come to mind). But that's not a huge problem. Fact is, he still sings in a half-whisper more sinisterly than any of the music-making droogies he came up with (next to Reznor, Marilyn Manson seems positively huggable). And while speaker-ripping tracks like the pulsating "Survivalism," the unexpectedly funky "God Given" and the grim techno-groove "My Violent Heart" don't break much new ground, they do burrow into the darkness with laudable efficiency.
Undoubtedly, Reznor's soul-sucking evocation of the end-time will have even more oomph live. But until he slithers into the local hockey rink with his usual high-concept audiovisual dread fest, the album version of Year Zero should keep the committed paranoids and death-cultists among us more than satisfied. Yup, the poet maudit of American goth is back.