NINE INCH NAILS
(The Null Corporation)
Anything Radiohead can do, Trent Reznor can do his way. Nine Inch Nails, his recording project, has joined Radiohead among the million-sellers who are now free agents in the digital era, and his first move is radical: “Ghosts I-IV,” an album made to be shared and altered freely.
“Ghosts I-IV” is 36 instrumental tracks (or near-instrumental, since human voices are among the sounds) and a coordinated set of elegantly eerie photographs. It’s available as a high-fidelity, easily copied download for $5, a two-CD set for $16.99 (including shipping) and in deluxe versions from ghosts.nin.com; in April there will be a retail four-LP vinyl version for $39. The opening nine tracks are also available free, from ghosts.nin.com. Instead of a standard copyright, Mr. Reznor gave the music a Creative Commons license; it can be shared and reworked as long as music built on “Ghosts” is noncommercial and attributed to Nine Inch Nails.
Mr. Reznor’s collaborator on “Ghosts” is Atticus Ross, his programmer and co-producer; a few guest musicians like Adrian Belew add guitar and other noises. Even without verbal cues — the track titles are numbers — much of the music is still unmistakably Nine Inch Nails: overloaded electronic dance beats (3, 7, 16, 19, 24, 29), isolated piano notes and elegies (1, 9, 12, 36), pounding rock (4, 26, 27, 31, 35) or all of them together (10), usually in minor keys in the bleak, open soundscapes that Mr. Reznor has perfected. “Ghosts” also shows his pattern-building side, with plinking Steve Reich percussion in tracks 10 and 21, and tries some uncharacteristic sounds like thumb piano in 21, orchestral samples in 11 and banjo in 28.
Most tracks can stand on their own, but they could also be heard as incomplete or anticipatory, potential soundtrack music or backing tracks for songs. Unlike Radiohead, which labors to make every song definitive and complete, Mr. Reznor has fully embraced a user-generated era. He has encouraged listeners to remix, “mutilate or destroy” the Nine Inch Nails catalog, even providing some separate instrumental parts. Now, with “Ghosts,” he’s virtually inviting other people’s voices. It’s Nine Inch Nails karaoke — add your own angst. JON PARELES