Twelve years have passed since Nine Inch Nails released Ghosts I – IV, their brooding suite of instrumental bric-a-brac, and in that time, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have made wordless sound collages a cottage industry. They scored David Fincher’s The Social Network two years later, winning them an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and they have composed music for more than a dozen films and TV series since. In interviews, Reznor has taken to describing working on Nine Inch Nails albums — like their recent angsty, excellent Add Violence and Bad Witch releases — as enjoyable respites from the workaday obligations of writing for film.
So it’s interesting just how different Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts sound compared to its predecessor. Where the 36 tracks on Ghosts I – IV came off experimental — Reznor has said that the goal for that project was to look at a photograph and compose, record, and fully mix a new song about it every day — Ghosts V and VI feel more considered. The tracks on the original Ghosts all had generic names (“34 Ghosts IV” was the track Lil Nas X sampled for “Old Town Road”) and they had almost no connecting thread to one another. But the songs on V and VI have descriptive titles — not unlike film-score cues — and they seem to foreshadow one another.
When Reznor and Ross surprise-released the records this week, ostensibly to take people’s minds off the coronavirus pandemic and give them a soundtrack for social distancing, they explained that the volumes represented different moods. “Ghosts V: Together is for when things seem like it might all be OK,” they wrote, “and Ghosts VI: Locusts … well, you’ll figure it out.”
Ghosts V focuses on generally uplifting ambient moods. Like a lot of the music on Ghosts I – IV, it owes clear debts to Brian Eno and Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, but with enough dissonance to sound distinctively “Reznorish.” The songs are spacious with gentle buzzing, humming, and exhaling drones that slowly evolve, complementing often pretty piano music.
The synthy strings on “Out in the Open” sound almost church-like (with Badalamenti overtones), and “Your Touch” has a breathy, gauzy quality that seems to fall apart, especially when the proggy, 8-bit synth sweeps come in. The record’s best track, and most traditionally Nine Inch Nails, is closer “Still Right Here,” which recalls some of the sounds of the band’s early releases, Pretty Hate Machine and Broken, over the course of its 10 minutes. They never use heavy-metal guitars (like on Ghosts I – IV), making for a mostly serene, 70-minute listen. On the Brian Eno tip, this is “Music for Avoiding Airports.”
The music turns much darker Ghosts VI, which, by proxy, makes it the more interesting of the two. It opens with repeated plinky piano — the likes of which Bill Murray used to annoy spirits in Ghost Busters — on a track called “The Cursed Clock,” but there are enough variations that it starts to sound like minimalist classical music. The following track, “Around Every Corner,” turns the piano line into atonal jazz and adds the type of dusky trumpet you hear in Philip Marlowe movies. “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” vibrates with banging dulcimer chords, like some kind of Dead Can Dance nightmare, “Run Like Hell” combines trip-hop vibes with film-noir horns, and “Another Crashed Car” flirts with sounding “industrial” with its musique concrète phone bleeps. “Your New Normal” (a particularly timely title) features clicking and clanging — it’s all tension, which has always been Reznor’s calling card.
Unlike the first Ghosts collection, these albums feel like distinct artistic statements. When Reznor and Ross announced them, they made it sound like they had rushed to finish them (“We decided to burn the midnight oil and complete these new Ghosts records as a means of staying somewhat sane,” the pair wrote) but somehow they sound more considered and complete than the initial Ghosts volumes. It’s comforting and unsettling to see how these apparitions unfold and take shape — but Nine Inch Nails’ best work has always happened when Reznor spends a little too much time in the shadows.