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Reznor's greatest strength has always been his ability to let his fundamental pop sensibility show through his fuzzed-out industrial signifiers and screaming-at-a-wall tantrum-rock pretensions. For all its heavily processed walls of guitar and reptilian electro lurching and cusswords, Pretty Hate Machine, still my favorite of Reznor's albums, is basically a dirtied-up Human League album (and Human League albums, it turned out, could stand to be dirtied up). The gas-masks, megaphone yowls, and apocalyptic despair of his subsequent albums were fun, but his old-school devotion to song form and titanic hooks were the real reasons I once carved the NIN logo on a treehouse wall. As a producer, Reznor knows how to stack drones on top of each other and crystallize pianos like nobody else, but those studio tricks don't add up to much when he's not welding them to actual songs. There's not a song to be found anywhere on Ghosts; nearly every one of the untitled instrumental sketches here feels emaciated and half-finished. What we're left with is two hours' worth of really good soundtrack music for American remakes of Japanese horror films.
In the 90s, Reznor played patron saint to IDM OGs, commissioning Aphex Twin remixes and signing Meat Beat Manifesto to his nothing label. In that regard, Ghosts is almost Reznor's IDM record, only he's never been all that interested in jittery side-panning drum programming or vintage-synth blob-farts. And this isn't ambient music either; nearly every piece here feels like a piece of a Nine Inch Nails song, a DVD extra to a movie we might never see. Many of the best tracks here are straight-up fuzz-rock stomps, but without the burden of lyrical conveyance or song-progression, that riffage just hangs there, churning without purpose.
Elsewhere, Reznor pits staticy drones against each other to see what happens, and often there's a built-in sense of melody and a dynamic force at work; it's just frustrating that we never hear what Reznor might do with it. Sometimes he'll bury chattering electro beats under forebodingly tortured synth-tones. Sometimes he'll offer shockingly clear impressionistic Erik Satie-esque pianos, letting them plink prettily away for minutes at a time before sending some new ominous machine-hum to molest them. Every once in a while, he'll use a riff or a bassline that I could swear he's used before but can't quite place. But even if every one of these tracks stands as a formal experiment unto itself, after an hour or two these half-formed ideas begin to bleed indistinctly into each other, evolving into puddles of vaguely ominous aural mush.
When Ghosts works best, it's as a showcase for Reznor's estimable studio skills. Plenty of the individual sounds here are just gorgeous, and Reznor even expands his palette a bit to encompass marimbas, banjos, and percussively Beck-like slide-guitar. He layers these sounds expertly, setting glassy pianos against distant roaring-siren counterpoints or interrupting a pulsing drone-hum with a surprisingly accessible bar-rock chug. But even as the tracks progress, nothing really goes anywhere or stands on its own-- even the best track here is essentially half of a really good Nine Inch Nails song. And maybe it still will be; Reznor could take the pieces here and and make great songs out of them, sort of like how James Murphy took a beat from his Nike-sponsored long-form LCD Soundsystem piece 45:33 to make the incandescent "Someone Great". Until then, though, we're left with pieces of songs, nothing more. If I were one of those early deluxe-pacakge customers, I'd want my $300 back.
-Tom Breihan, April 02, 2008
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