Trent Reznor usually struggles for years to make a new Nine Inch Nails album, but during the long world tour behind 2005's With Teeth, something unexpected happened: He found himself writing and recording new music that flowed with surprising ease. Those songs became Year Zero, an apocalyptic concept album due out April 17th. "It was written and recorded primarily with just me and my main collaborator, Atticus Ross, in hotel rooms, buses, backstage closets, etc.," Reznor writes in an e-mail interview. "Frankly, I have always dreaded writing – there always seemed to be pain involved, unpleasant self-examination and a lot of fear. Somehow I've managed to finally figure out how my brain works, and writing has become just the opposite."
The album takes place in a dystopian version of the year 2022: The religious right has taken over the U.S. government, there are mind-control drugs in the water supply, and something called the Presence – in the form of a giant hand reaching from the sky – keeps showing up. (The image is captured on the album cover.) Reznor suggests the plot – which has also spawned an intricate and mysterious online game that elaborates on its world (see iamtryingtobelieve.com, among numerous other sites) – was inspired by current events. "I have primarily dealt with personal issues in my songs up to this point – relating, not relating, searching, failing, trying, hoping, hating," he says. "Human issues. However, when I look at the cold heart of big business and our murdering government, I am truly afraid. I don't get the sense there is any humanity or compassion behind those suits as I watch their total disregard for human life and the ecology of this planet."
After coming off the road last summer, Reznor retreated to a secluded house in Malibu to continue work on the album. "I went into it with a sense of not giving a fuck," he says. "Not worried about singles, radio play, melody, 'correct' song structure, record labels, marketability, critics, kissing ass, my own fans' expectations, chart positions, being fashionable, etc. In other words, probably every single thing a band like, say, Fall Out Boy worries about."
On the resulting album, Reznor sounds rejuvenated, combining the squalling electronic experiments of 1999's The Fragile with more accessible song structures and stronger melodies. "In the past, I have started recording with a specific sound or goal in mind," says Reznor. "But with Year Zero, I really just let my subconscious take over and steer the ship." And the album is just the first half of his story. "I've just begun working on the conclusion, part two," he says. "The fate of the world is in my hands."
This story is from the March 22nd, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.