The experience of Trent Reznor and his influence on modern music is given a Masters class in the latest installment from Nine Inch Nails, Not The Actual Events.
While it is hard to argue that Reznor’s star hasn’t fallen from the heights it saw in the mid-nineties, it is not through decline of talent. Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have hit the point of critical mass that musical acts do when their releases see double digits. There are simply only so many times you can be groundbreaking. Eventually, even technically proficient albums like 2005’s, With Teeth, will be lost in the shuffle. While Reznor has not been without effort in recent years, many, like 2008’s The Slip and 2013’s Hesitation Marks, failed to ignite listeners outside of his devoted inner circle.
Listening to Not The Actual Events is like first waking up the morning after shaking off a bad cold. You’re renewed, buoyed by a sense of ambitious potential and eager to make up for lost time. The opening track, “Branches / Bones”, while brief, is immediately engaging and finds a thready pulse reminiscent of their Downward Spiral heydays.
Reznor races over existential lyrics in the opener like “Yeah, parts of me are slowing down and time is speeding up … Cold and black and infinite with nothing left to lose / If you try to keep the flies away, the makeup hides the bruise.” with an enthusiasm and urgency he hasn’t hit this singularly since “The Perfect Drug”. A fantastic opener, “Branches / Bones”, sets the tables for a potent album that demands to be included on at least a shortlist for one of their most accomplished records.
“Dear World,” opens with a decidedly 80’s interpretation in both composition and with which affectation Reznor chooses to sing. What could be a jarring downshift given the corker of an opener, finds the veteran Reznor gliding into a subversive elegiac ballad that stands apart but upon a solid foundation.
Followed by “She’s Gone”, Reznor is backed by heavy, driving bass drums and a measured balance of feedback while he attempts a serviceable Nick Cave impersonation. Letting the track run one second short of six minutes allows the necessary room for Reznor to stretch out and put his signature on the tail end of the rhythmically hypnotic track for which it is all the better.
Despite the inclusion of fellow 90’s legend, Dave Grohl, behind the kit for “The Idea of You”, the track finds itself victim of a surprisingly generic musical arrangement and mumble-spoken incoherent lyrics. Not a complete loss, the anthemic “shred your lungs” chorus is undeniably catchy and looks back fondly on the tightly-wound energy heard in classics like “Head Like a Hole”.
I just have to hope that the repetitive sludge rock guitar riff on “Burning Bright (Field of Fire)” is purposely aping either Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” or Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”. I’m not sure for what reason he would, but I’m even less certain why he’d bother trying to pretend he’s not given its blunt obviousness. Formerly of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, Dave Navarro, makes a surprising but welcome appearance on the track, delivering an impressive guitar solo that almost gets buried in the background of the steady closer. Navarro’s licks are every bit as brilliant and sparkling as they are unfamiliar to the Nine Inch Nails repertoire.
While brief in its track listing, Not The Actual Events, finds Reznor remaining fresh, daring to try new things. Where the album excels is in Reznor’s wherewithal to master these new aspects he incorporates. They accentuate the sonic sensibilities that have made Nine Inch Nails great for decades, while never overshadowing the root DNA of what fans have come to love in exchange for something flashy but ultimately fleeting.
The maestro has long since hit his stride but it is refreshing, if not relieving, with a release like Not The Actual Events to see the easy stride in which Reznor can step back into the saddle, delivering a late entry as one of the year’s more rewarding releases.