by Jonathan Bannister (@j_utah)
For roughly 28 years, Trent Reznor has made his trade in dealing with the American condition. He’s wallowed in the sickness that resides in each of us and he’s dealt with the disease that spreads from that sickness that corrupts society. All of this while battling his own illnesses and coming out the other side. As the foul year that was 2016 drew to a close, Reznor and his cohort Atticus Ross (now an official member of Nine Inch Nails) released a new EP called Not the Actual Events. In an intriguing twist, if you purchase the EP from their site, the downloaded album cover is different from the cover used on all the streaming services. This secret cover is, in fact, the same cover image as their 2002 album Still. The similarities also extend to the typeface used on the cover. So how does this new EP relate to the old one?
When thinking about them together they both feel like albums that deal with looking back and taking stock. Still finds Reznor doing stripped down versions of songs from his catalogue up to that point, along with new instrumental tracks and one new song. It is an album made up of everything that made Nine Inch Nails up to that point. It’s a bleak experience. Gone was the character from those previous albums. Here was Reznor internalizing his own creations. The new song on the album, “And All That Could’ve Been” is one of the best songs in the NIN catalogue. It has a feeling of being lost in a snow storm, a last missive to anyone out there listening. Listening to Still one wondered if that was going to be it. Knowing what we know now about that time and the struggles Reznor was going through it very well could have been.
It’s now 14 years later from that release and Not the Actual Events finds Reznor clean, married, a father, and as commercially successful as he’s ever been. Not the Actual Events doesn’t contain new versions of old songs (though one may want to count The Fragile: Deviations 1 as filling that role) but what is there is something far more complex. On first listen one picks up on the sonic cues. There is “Branches/Bones” with its “garage electronics” vibe found on The Slip. “Dear World,” would sound at home on Hesitation Marks. On one level Not the Actual Events is Reznor taking stock sonically. A summation of the sounds and technology he’s been using from With Teeth onwards. But to leave it there wouldn’t be enough. There’s much more the deeper you go.
It’s been oft-quoted that Reznor said the EP was “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record.” The lyrics are buried, distorted. There is more sound and noise to this EP. But this is something that is not strictly related to the music. Back during the release of Year Zero Reznor was playing around with how one released an album. There were clues to decipher, codes to break, leaked tracks on USB drives dropped around the country. Some of this spirit is back with Not the Actual Events. If you look up the lyrics on Apple Music you’ll find that the first track has a lot more words that aren’t on the album. They’re also formatted really specifically. This all feels intentional. Suddenly, the first track cutting off abruptly takes on new meaning. “She’s Gone Away” feels like a sequel to “Reptile.” The lyrics themselves are lines and words from “Reptile” itself. But they’re jumbled, they don’t quite flow right. Reading all the lyrics together it feels like Reznor playing with the idea of memory and recollection. Summation of a past that you may not remember correctly. Did it even happen at all?
“Maybe that was somebody else, maybe I was somebody else” Reznor says on “The Idea of You.” Dave Grohl pounds away on the drums while Reznor questions if he’s really changed, is he any different from the wounded animal on Still? “Just go back to the idea of me.” It all ends with "Burning Bright (Field on Fire)". Volume cranked, Reznor screams “I’m going back, Of course I am, as if I ever had a choice, Back to what I always knew I was…You’re not really what you know you are you know?” It’s always blackest just before the dawn and right when all hope seems lost he sings “Break through the surface and breath, I am forgiven, I am free, I am a field on fire!” What sounds like regression is actually making peace with the past and laying it to rest. The imagery of burning, cleansing the past by laying it to rest on a funeral pyre.
Of course, this could just be reading way too much into it. Thinking once again on the title, maybe the songs are all a lie? Maybe it’s just a nod and a wink to only being an EP? A promise of some future full length still to come? Or maybe the actual events themselves aren’t important. Maybe it’s all of these things. What is known is Not the Actual Events finds Reznor still pushing himself sonically while still dealing with the darkness inside. Getting older still has its demons and with the promise of two major works coming in 2017, more of them are sure to be unearthed.