"Is my viciousness/losing ground, ground, ground, ground, ground?" croaks Trent Reznor on "Discipline," the propulsive new single from Nine Inch Nails' The Slip. It's a question more than a few rockstars are asking themselves these days. Pop divas and hip-hop producers command the musical zeitgeist. The iPod long ago made albums, those supreme rock-era icons, seem as dowdy as Victorian whalebone skirts. In these dire times, what's an old-fashioned Dionysian with a guitar and a messiah complex to do to stay relevant?
Give away his music for free, apparently. "This one's on me," reads the note on Nine Inch Nails' Website, where visitors can download The Slip in a variety of file formats — for nary a red cent. Reznor has been sticking it to the Man with distribution gambits for a while now. In 2007, he urged fans to "steal" NIN's Year Zero online to avoid getting gouged by his then-label, Interscope, and stashed USB drives containing "clues" to the whereabouts of additional music in the bathrooms of concert venues on his European tour. And in March, free from his Interscope contract, he released the instrumental opus Ghosts I-IV under a multitiered payments ystem. But The Slip is his most radical stunt yet. He has issued the album under a Creative Commons license, which allows listeners to remix the songs as they see fit, provided they do so for noncommercial purposes and credit the results to Nine Inch Nails. It's an impressively democratic, fourth-wall-shattering gesture coming from one of music's biggest control-freak auteurs. In the future, all of us will be Trent Reznor for 15 minutes.
Of course, there are still a few moves best left to Reznor himself. Like bellowing a death wish — "Put the gun/In my mouth/Close your eyes/Blow my fucking brains out" — through a squall of distortion over monstrous power chords. That moment comes in "1,000,000," one of a handful of aggro howls in The Slip that's sure to please devotees. The most torrid of these is "Head Down," a typical Reznor lament — "This is not my face/This is not my life" — that keeps getting swallowed up by drifting billows of digital fuzz.
Although it's not a pure headphones album like Ghosts I-IV, The Slip rewards intensive listening: Check out the varying colors and gradations of buzz in the chorus of "Head Down"; the push and pull of the clanking beat that powers the album closer, "Demon Seed." In Reznor's infernal visions, the devil is in the sonic details.
Stylistically, The Slip finds Reznor on familiar turf. There are flashes of the symphonic electronica he dabbled with on 1999's The Fragile, some snoozy ambient mood pieces like those on Ghosts I-IV and a couple of the prettiest, stateliest ballads Reznor has recorded. (The gorgeous "Lights in the Sky" finds him singing in a near-whisper over tolling piano chords.) Nine Inch Nails have always had a danceable side — never more so than on 1994's "Closer,"which mashed up Anglophile synth rock with gutbucket American funk — but"Discipline" is the closest Reznor has ever come to disco, right down to a splashing high-hat, boosted way up in the mix, Giorgio Moroder-style. And, of course, there are eardrum-rending yowlers like "Letting You," adystopian vision of the War on Terror: "You train us how to act/You keep the fear intact/The imminent attack . . . We are letting you get away with it."
That song may remind listeners of Year Zero, Reznor's anti-Bush concept album, but the protest rants here are mostly personal. The Slip is, in other words, vintage Nine Inch Nails. After the recent thematic and instrumental excursions, Reznor is back to railing at high volume against his usual targets: life, fate and that perennial bugaboo, his own rot-caked soul.
Reznor came of age during the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s, and his innovation was to give that musical movement's rampant angst — the dread and daddy issues that the grunge rockers were always moaning about — a high-tech makeover. He turned GenX self-pity into the computer blues. Indeed, today it appears that Reznor has reached the grizzled-bluesman phase of his career. He keeps himself in the news as a digital-distribution renegade, but musically he is looking more and more classicist, juggling old tropes, burrowing deeper into longtime obsessions, honing his craftsmanship and virtuosity. For listeners who like their music loud and fierce and pissed off at just about everything, there aren't too many better options than The Slip. Plus, the price is right.