i was surprised to find, yesterday, that since 1 January, i had listened to 99 albums. It seemed all too fortunate then, that my 100th album of the year should be a brand new release from one of my favourite artists and, in my opinion, one of the very greatest creative minds in music today, Nine Inch Nails (the mind belongs to Trent Reznor, of course). Having been loosed from his record label bonds late last year, Reznor is leading the way in a new kind of thinking, in terms of music distribution. In interviews, and in the way his collaboration with Saul Williams was released last autumn, Reznor is clearly enthusiastic about new ways of delivering music to the fans.
His new album, released 2 days ago, is Ghosts I–IV [Halo 26], which comprises four 9-track EPs, each filled entirely with instrumental music. There’s a variety of ways in which the music can be obtained: the first EP, Ghosts I, can be downloaded free of charge; all four can be downloaded for $5 (barely £2.50 at today’s rates); a 2CD edition is available for $10; and, for the really keen, there are “deluxe” and “ultra deluxe” editions, with additional accoutrements. i opted for the 2CD edition which, since it isn’t released until April, entitled me to an immediate download in any format i chose – unsurprisingly, i opted for FLAC – which includes a large number of wallpapers and other graphics, plus a PDF file of the accompanying 40-page book (each track has its own, very beautiful, artwork). It’s not the first time i’ve encountered an artist including a digital download in the purchase of a CD (Björk began doing it recently), but it seems an idea that will probably catch on, since it both allows one to listen immediately, as well as providing the listener who wants it with a physical object.
One of the many supreme achievements of Nine Inch Nails’ music, is that every single track declares itself within moments to be by Nine Inch Nails, despite the plethora of stylistic directions Reznor has taken over the years. Furthermore, while Pretty Hate Machine may have aged somewhat, the rest of his output retains a freshness, a newness, that belies its real age (can The Downward Spiral really be 14 years old?!). Ghosts I–IV picks up elements from The Fragile and, particularly, Still, creating an album of incredible highs and lows.
It’s difficult and perhaps nonsensical to talk about any of the EPs in isolation, as there’s an overall ebb and flow between gentle, almost unbearably intimate (and, yes, fragile) fragments that yield temporarily to somewhat more driving (but usually restrained) pieces. Throughout, piano and guitar are given prominence, but in different ways; the piano speaks with a quiet solemnity, whereas the guitar gives way to wilder, distorted gestures, although seemingly trapped in a cage (it becomes clear just how significant Adrian Belew’s contribution to The Downward Spiral really was). Many other acoustic sources are included (a marimba appears several times), all glossed and glitched in Reznor’s trademark ways, although there’s little trace of the unbridled rage that typifies much of his music. From The Fragile onward, a very different side to his sensibilities and mode of expression has become increasingly apparent, and it’s that which dominates here.