Album Review: Nine Inch Nails – Strobe Light

[Self-released; 2009]

Trent Reznor has built his entire career with Nine Inch Nails on the notion that he works alone, writing, producing, and playing nearly all of the instruments on every NIN record from 1989’s debut Pretty Hate Machine to 2008’s The Slip. Which is why fans were shocked when they learned that Reznor’s ninth studio album, Strobe Light, would be produced by hip-hop hitmaker Timbaland, best known for his groundbreaking work with Chris Cornell. Tim’s influence can be heard considerably on Strobe Light, as Reznor expands his sound to feature much more overt hip-hop overtones. The result may be offputting to longtime fans, but ultimately represents a bold and rewarding new direction for one of the most creative and prolific rock artists of the last 25 years, and could be his best album since 1999’s The Fragile.

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Like much of the work Timbaland produces, Strobe Light is built on stuttering drum machines and spacey keyboards. Nowhere is this more effective than on the Dirty South-indebted “Clap Track Crack Slap.” Over a menacing synth hook, Reznor growls “I stepped on a crack, but then I got slapped, and everyone clapped and threw me in the tracks.” It’s classic Reznorian nihilism with a crunk twist. On “Even Closer” and “Still Hurts,” Reznor updates two of his most well-known songs with Timbaland’s production flourishes, and the new models blow the originals out of the water.

A major advantage for Reznor in using an outside producer is that he is granted full access to Timbaland’s star-packed rolodex. He brings in Jay-Z, Chris Martin, and Bono for the alt-rock posse cut “Everybody’s Doing It,” which features the triumphant refrain “Everybody’s doing it/so nothing can stop me now.” His collaborations with Sheryl Crow (“Pussygrinder”) and Alicia Keys (“Still Hurts”) establish his cred as a legitimate pop crossover star. Fergie and Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen provide strong harmonies on “Laid, Paid, and Played,” Reznor’s most unabashedly fame-celebrating song to date. The title of “Feel Like Being Dead Again” is a nod to Lil Wayne’s classic codeine ode “I Feel Like Dying,” and features Reznor free-associating over an inspired sample of A-ha’s “Take On Me.” Reznor revisits many of his most prominent lyrical themes, talking about being “on my hands and knees in the club” in the classic-Timbaland bounce of “Coffin on the Dance Floor”.

All over Strobe Light is the mark of an artist unwilling to stand still or look back on his past. With assistance from Timbaland, who is at the top of his production game throughout, Reznor boldly embraces modern urban music culture in creating what can only be called a club banger for the black-hearted.