I know, I know. I’m not exactly being current here. The EP in question was released nine days before the end of 2016 (don’t think I didn’t notice that one, Trent), and we are approaching the end of February 2017 already. So what gives?
Apparently the “physical component” of the EP is shipping this week. It was supposed to ship in January, but there were snags in the plan. It isn’t a cd, but it is something physical and tangible that is presumably related to the EP somehow. We will “have to deal with” whatever this physical component is, according to Reznor. I’m super excited.
I pre-ordered that sucker, woke up the morning before the official release to find it available early and have played it from start to finish a number of times since. After giving myself a good two months to soak it in, I feel that there’s no harm in sharing my impressions here. For readers who aren’t fans of NIN yet, come on in. I won’t bite, I promise. Or don’t. There’s other articles. Or a book you could read about zombies. The blog is called “Things Chewing on my Brain” and this EP definitely qualifies as that.
The first listen of a new NIN release is a pretty major event for me. I’ve been there on release day for everything from The Fragile onward. Each one since then has had highlights, as well as a few moments that didn’t grab me right away (the songs With Teeth, The Warning, about half of Ghosts, Everything and Running come to mind). This EP was tight, solid, and engaging from the very first listen. Every piece of this puzzle of sound is just as necessary as the rest for it to work as a whole. I don’t mean to suggest that the above listed songs aren’t also necessary, but sometimes it takes awhile to fully wrap your head around why particular songs exist in the spaces that they do. At least it does for me. I didn’t completely understand it the first time I heard it, but I really liked it.
NTAE is all over the place, and yet cohesive at the same time. It excited me in a way I haven’t been since Year Zero. Although I’m a fan of Ghosts, The Slip, and Hesitation Marks, this EP is going above and beyond any sort of preconceived expectations or restrictions. There is a freewheeling, “screw it” attitude that stands out. A breath of fresh air.
It is very reminiscent of ’90s NIN. There is a recklessness here: a defiance that was lost for a time. I wasn’t expecting what I heard, and I loved every second of it. It still holds up 20 or so listens later, and is currently vying for a rank in my top five favorite NIN releases of all time (currently TDS, The Fragile, Broken, Year Zero, and With Teeth in an ever-changing order).
Branches/Bones: This song leaves you wanting more. It comes on strong, builds quickly and ends abruptly. I was expecting for it to be an instrumental, thanks to the leaked track lengths that came out a week before release. Couldn’t be happier to be proven wrong. The abstract nature of the lyrics is a sign of things to come. There is meaning within, but it isn’t out in the open so much as a collection of images that might have been produced by a fever dream. Beyond that, the simple but intense groove of the song makes it shine in the brief time it exists before moving on to the next track.
Dear World: Very different from the first track. Dancy and modern in comparison to the rest of the EP. This song, nonetheless, continues to add to the tapestry of what the EP as a whole is all about. I love the dual channel point-counterpoint portion of the track, as if someone with multiple personality disorder was undergoing mitosis. The theme of duality is one of the major pillars of the entire NIN catalog, and is very uniquely expressed in this song. There is also something unsettling about the track, even though it is the most radio-friendly of the bunch. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but that aspect of Trent’s songwriting is exactly what has kept me coming back for going on two decades so far.
She’s Gone Away: Who is “She”? Is “She” a murder victim? A former lover? What is going on with these lyrics? My first listen-through those thoughts were first and foremost. The driving beat is ominous, but catchy as hell, and the meaning is left ambiguous as many other lyrics in the EP have been. This is the point where the EP really opens up and goes into strange new territory. You’re either along for the ride by this point, or you’re not. There’s no kid gloves, no alibi, no map, and no apologies. I love the fact that Trent Reznor is going in strange directions with NIN nowadays and eagerly look forward to what is coming next from the project.
The Idea of You: The legendary Dave Grohl (who did the drums for With Teeth) gives the beat for this song. There’s a lot going on here. The title is “The Idea of You” but in the lyrics Reznor sings about “the idea of me”, which is a great callback to the song Only as well as that whole duality theme that rides through the entire NIN catalog (especially in the ’90s). I absolutely love the whisper scat vocals that make the song almost a sequel to I Do Not Want This from The Downward Spiral. But those drums make the whole song just burst with intense and furious energy, making the segue into the final track so much more savory in my opinion.
Burning Bright (Field on Fire): The fifth and final track of the EP feels like a climax of pure chaos and insanity, starkly different from how many NIN records end. The song leaves me wanting more each time I hear it. It promises something without saying explicitly what that something is. It also sounds like Trent had a lot of fun putting it together. Off the rails, unapologetic, capturing an essence of NIN that hasn’t really been heard much in a long time. None of the bands that emulated NIN’s sound back in the day could ever dream up a song quite like this one. It starts at a loud point, gets kinda quiet, but then builds right back up, maintaining intensity until it abruptly ends.
I am very excited to find out what is coming next from NIN. I’ve had my suspicions about what that something might be from the themes of this EP and a few comments made by Reznor in his interview with Zane Lowe, but that’s a topic for another day. (All you up-and-coming sleuths out there who want to guess at what the mysterious secret project he’s working on could be, listen to the podcast here.)
If you like good sonic art and haven’t listened to this EP yet, do yourself a favor and check it out immediately.