Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor reached such heights with Year Zero's guerilla-style promotional buildup—an endeavor that stretched from USB drives loaded with clues and "lost" in nightclub bathrooms to a network of websites whose fictionalized content laid clues to the lyrics' dystopian concept—that the album would have to be its genre's simultaneous Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band just to touch its own marketing efforts.
As it turns out, Year Zero doesn't just fall short of the promo campaign; it doesn't even rank among NIN's most adventurous efforts, like 1999's hyper-detailed, two-CD mixing-board masterpiece The Fragile. Musically speaking, Reznor has returned—wisely, but predictably—to his stock in trade: a pulsing, sexualized 4/4 throb whose melodious inner pop song struggles to crack the complex industrial grime atop it. (See "The Good Soldier," a near-reprise of 1994's omnipresent MTV hit "Closer.") As on 2005's With Teeth, he's sequenced the material in such a way that Year Zero feels less like an album than like a single, subtly shifting track—that's an hour long.
But for whatever musical water he may be treading, Reznor has at least done something beyond marketing to distinguish Year Zero. An eerily believable fiction of mind control, conspiracy, and religious terrorism, the album's lyric sheet marks the furthest Reznor has stepped outside of his own damaged psyche to consider the greater human condition. It's a subtle but important shift in a catalog laden with first-person melodrama, and even if few outside of the fans who've mapped Year Zero's accompanying websites will notice the thematic change, here's hoping Reznor's enlightened focus leads him to greater musical discoveries next time out.