The new Nine Inch Nails album, Year Zero, comes out on Tuesday. It's a science-fictional concept album (probably the first such thing since David Bowie's Outside, though I may be wrong about that), and the story are of particularly interest for both its critique of conservative religion and its broader eschatological themes.
The nonlinear story has been unfolding in a viral marketing campaign (or "alternate reality game," or "interactive experience") made up of websites, mp3s, and toll-free phone numbers starting earlier this year, establishing the history and atmosphere of the dystopia in which Year Zero takes place. In a nutshell: 15 years from now, the United States has become both a police state and a theocracy. This government has used nuclear weapons on Iran, required all Muslims to register or face execution, and drugged the populace into submission with tranquilizers in the water supply. The Year Zero backstory takes a bleak view of the future of American religion, summed up by the logo of the "Faithful Civil Patrol" organized by the First Evangelical Church of Plano: a crucifix emerging from the barrel of a gun.
This type of dystopia is not the most original—it's reminiscent of the worlds of Katherine Kerr's story "Asylum" and the film Children of Men, just to name two. The medium in which it has been revealed is a novelty, though, and there's a definite thrill to be gained from exploring the sites, a sense of uncovering a mystery. This is especially true in the case of Year Zero's most interesting concept: "The Presence," a mysterious vision/hallucination of an enormous, ghostly hand descending from the sky. The idea has appeared earlier in Trent Reznor's oeuvre (in the song "The Wretched"), implying that the remainder of the Year Zero story grew from the concept. There are a number of versions of the image available (including one on the album's cover—see right), but the most chilling one is the trailer for the album currently up at the official album site.
The Presence gives Year Zero some theological depth. The story's attitude to religion goes further than the straightforward critique of evangelicalism: the Presence proves that God is not on the side of those who claim divine guidance. In "The Warning," one of the strongest songs on the album, the ghostly hand speaks:
you've become a virusThe Presence is a warning against our tribalism and selfishness. Year Zero is apocalyptic in the truest sense of the word: if we don't get our act together, it warns us, God will end the world for us. In this regard, there's something remarkably traditional about the eschatology of Year Zero. Though its political origins are the opposite of, say, Left Behind, its attitude towards the relation between God and sinful humanity is the same. We have strayed from the path of righteousness, it tells us, and we are blundering into divine retribution.
killing off his host...
we have come to intervene
you will change your ways and you will make amends
or we will wipe this place clean
The religious themes don't end there, though. The backstory refers to both New Testament apocalypticism and Old Testament prophecy, and one interpretation of the cryptic numbers that appear throughout the Year Zero sites claims that they refer to Jeremiah.
The album itself should be better than it is. Reznor has stated that much of the music was improvised, and it shows—there's more than a little meandering, a lot of by-the-book structuring rather than the tight composition that made The Downward Spiral and Broken work so well. Interestingly, the songs that sound the best are the ones with the most apocalyptic lyrics, particularly the album-closer "Zero Sum," which seems to describe the Presence's destruction of humankind. Nevertheless, after being intrigued by the way in which the cryptic websites set up the story, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the somewhat lackluster way in which the album's lyrics describe that same world. Thankfully, though, the last few songs are good enough to make up for the more unremarkable ones.
There are currently several listings of Year Zero-related websites, the most thorough of which is at NIN Wiki. Several of the listed sites don't go live until the album is released, and the story is expected to continue for three years (probably encompassing another album and possibly even a movie). A good overview of the earliest sites describing the Year Zero world was published in February by MTV.com. The album comes out in the US on Tuesday April 17th from Interscope Records.
For more on apocalypticism in SF, see chapter 10 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.