This week, Nine Inch Nails posted the following message on its website:
AS THE NEWS SEEMS TO TURN EVER MORE GRIM BY THE HOUR, WE’VE FOUND OURSELVES VACILLATING WILDLY BETWEEN FEELING LIKE THERE MAY BE HOPE AT TIMES TO UTTER DESPAIR — OFTEN CHANGING MINUTE TO MINUTE … MUSIC — WHETHER LISTENING TO IT, THINKING ABOUT IT OR CREATING IT — HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE THING THAT HELPED US GET THROUGH ANYTHING — GOOD OR BAD. WITH THAT IN MIND, WE DECIDED TO BURN THE MIDNIGHT OIL AND COMPLETE THESE NEW GHOSTS RECORDS AS A MEANS OF STAYING SOMEWHAT SANE.
As I admitted to a friend on the phone later that day, getting out of bed and discovering the release of new Nine Inch Nails material is one of the best things I could have possibly woken up to at this strange, isolated point in my life. What’s more is that these two new albums aren’t exactly standalones. They are sequels to Ghosts I-IV, an ambient instrumental album that recently turned 12 years old and marks a fascinating turning point in the band’s career.
Ghosts I-IV is something of a toy box for Trent Reznor’s most introspective musical ideas. In stepping away from the realm of industrial rock, the frontman demonstrated the haunting power of his compositional abilities. In fact, a few tracks from the album went on to score what I consider the greatest movie of the 2010s. Reznor and Ross would hardly pause from writing film and TV scores after Ghosts I-IV. One piece, “34 Ghosts IV,” was sampled by Lil Nas X to become Billboard’s longest running No. 1 song, ultimately winning Reznor his first (and likely last) Country Music Award.
With all that said, while Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts lack the gritty, combustive charm of their oddly imposing predecessor, they are mature and deeply affecting additions to the Nine Inch Nails canon. Both albums sacrifice that distinct, thrummy intensity of previous NIN records, trading this quality in for a focus on an all-consuming atmosphere. And yet, the albums could not differ more in tone.
Ghosts V: Together is a warm yet unsettling hug. The best way to listen to the album is with your eyes closed and your head down, allowing Reznor’s bouts of ethereal humming dissonance to fill your mind. Like the best NIN records, Together weaves through slow and rewarding apexes with intensity, drawing one in completely before unleashing the naked core of its ideas. Both “Letting Go While Holding On” and the title track achieve this gradual release expertly.
There is no shortage of what I call the “NIN chord” here, (a major third on top of a flat seventh, if you’re dying to know), a conflicting set of notes that thrive in the band’s typically ambiguous emotional settings. If you’ve listened to some NIN, you probably know what these notes evoke — a reluctant, fleeting smile.
Reznor appears to cite composer Vangelis (“Blade Runner”) with the patient depth of tones; each layer of sound feels both vividly human and distantly digital at the same time. This is a theme that Together relishes in, most notably on “Your Touch.” Despite the tactile impressions of the track’s title, its melodies are wispy, warped electronic phrases. It made me consider what human connection often feels like in a global pandemic: faces as grainy laptop camera images, voices as feeble phone speaker audio, conversation as iMessage notifications.
If Together in an album that exists outside of time — bleary, pulsating and digital — then Locusts is a panicking, frazzled human heart crushed by urgency.
Look no further than its opening track, “The Cursed Clock,” to understand how drastically morbid everything becomes. Cool vibrating synths are replaced with a piano and strange whirring. The minimalist uniformity of the notes would make John Carpenter proud: If one were to insert them into a “Halloween” movie, I don’t think anyone would question it.
Here, musical ideas are no longer nine-minute waves of sweet kinetic force — they are indecent little trios of short notes that attack like hornets. It’s no secret that NIN writes dark music, but never before has it been so overtly present in the band’s musical direction. NIN often coats its bleakness in grimy headbangability, but Locusts takes a far blunter approach to the abyss. Moreover, not since 2002’s Still has NIN tried to feel so intimate. The rendition of “Something I Can Never Have” on that record makes it sound as though Reznor’s voice is echoing in a tiny room. That effect is attempted here, though without vocals we merely hear the pianist’s rustling and breathing.
Locusts continues with many of these same components, sinking deeper into its listener with unbending claws. Aside from its ambient backgrounds, most elements of Locusts are organic; Reznor brings out some brass on top of the piano, delving further into the bumpy noir style he employed on the “Watchmen” score.
The newest installment of the Ghosts series certainly breaks new ground. But the question of where it will take Nine Inch Nails is an open one. Trent Reznor is so utterly capable of musical excellence that the question isn’t a matter of if, but how. Is this full-throated evil going to remain a part of the band’s songwriting? I’m curious to see how that would play with its more digestible material.
The thesis of Nine Inch Nails is something like, “The world is a void and nothing matters, but it’s OK to feel that way.” I'm guessing that sentiment is not an unpopular one right now. Together and Locusts managed to amplify all the feelings I had about living inside all day while the world seems to have halted. By embracing the tenet that made them who they are, NIN did us all a favor by expediting this release.