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While I’ve been a big fan of Nine Inch Nails, I’d often noticed that I preferred the instrumentals like “A Warm Place” or “La Mer” to some of the vocal work. Not because of Trent Reznor‘s voice; he’s got a great one that compliments his style of music very well. It’s more an issue of the lyrics which often come off as childish and juvenile wailing. Oddly enough, sometimes it’s not the lyrics themselves — though I love both versions of “Hurt“, Johnny Cash finds the core of the song much better than Reznor could even hope to. Trent may have written the song, but Cash lived it. Not to mention Cash’s slight tweak of the lyrics to “crown of thorns” from “crown of shit” works better and raises the lyrical quality up a notch. Admittedly, a crown of shit would be much worse than a crown of thorns, at least in my eyes, but it just seems less… mature. If that makes a lick of sense.
However, of course — any of Trent Reznor’s songs have not only outstanding production but a great sense of musicality (and a sense of experimentation with different sounds) and a lot of auditory texture to them. Even some of his more minimalist productions allow you to get lost inside of them, discovering new things and new sounds with each listening.
His new record, Ghosts I-IV plays to his strengths — firstly, it’s an entirely instrumental record. Though his lyrics have gotten better with age (Year Zero has some of his best, less woe-is-me type lyrics, applying his gifts and interests in darkness to a sci-fi dystopia rather than his own self-loathing), it’s truly with the music that Reznor shines. Reznor has said that this album — his first collaborative work, with Atticus Ross co-writing and performing in the studio with him on every cut — is a soundtrack for daydreams, and one can definitely hear that. The tone and the feel of the album shifts over each of the four parts (to be released on 2 CDs for those, like me, who still like the physicality of that medium), from darker, more malevolent sounds to calm, meditative pieces.
Every piece is very clearly a Nine Inch Nails song — there are some quotes, or perhaps almost-quotes from earlier pieces, and he uses a similar sonic palette — but it’s quite a bit different than the other records. It’s also quite possibly his best, which some might think odd, given that it’s a self-released instrumental project, which often don’t have the best reputations. (Perhaps the only way it could be dodgier is if it was released as a solo or side project rather than under the NIN moniker.) Though, to act on those suspicions would be folly — particularly when the price is so cheap (free for the first quarter; $5 for a digital-only release, and $10 for a physical copy that also includes the downloads); this truly stands alongside records like Broken, Pretty Hate Machine and The Fragile (I don’t care what you say, I really like that record!). Ghosts is the furthest thing from a toss-off project or a simple cash-in to raise funds for the “real” record. It’s a wonderful project from a man who is often underrated as a composer (due in part to his popularity as a pop artist).
I’ve had Ghosts on my iPod, listening to it over and over since it came out. I’m listening to it right now, in fact. I’ve found that it’s a perfect music to read and write to; it’s pleasant and not-overbearing — however, it’s also music that you can devote all your attention to and be amazed every time; the best of both worlds. If you haven’t enjoyed Nine Inch Nails in the past, I would still recommend this album; after all, a lot of complaints seem to be about Trent’s lyrical persona — complaints I can sympathize with — but an aspect of him which is absent on this recording.
The download comes with a PDF file featuring the liner notes as well as desktops, avatars and other bonus goodies. Nine Inch Nails is one of those acts that’s always paid as much attention to the physical package as the disc inside, and the artwork is up to the high standards of previous releases. If you’d like to see it — you can for free. How about that? I’ve often thought of NIN as objects d’art, and people who’ve never even considered purchasing or even picking up a Nine Inch Nails record can see what they’ve been missing visually.
The year is young, but I would be surprised if Ghosts I-IV doesn’t show up on a lot of year-end best lists. Check it out.