2016 was a strange year for fans of Nine Inch Nails, though not in a bad way; Trent Reznor promised new music and he delivered, in the form of the EP Not The Actual Events near the end of the year, along with a handful of soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. Possibly more interesting than Not The Actual Events was the announcement that Nine Inch Nails is officially a duo, with Ross finally joining Reznor as a legitimate band member (as opposed to just a long-time collaborator). (For those unaware, the two have been officially working together since NIN’s 2005 album With Teeth, though their relationship predates 2005.) Then, to stir the proverbial kettle again, it was announced that Not The Actual Events would not be released on CD (though it is available on vinyl), but instead a very limited “physical component” would be available for purchase, bundled with a digital download of the EP.
As a big fan of Reznor’s work, I was excited to see what this could include, and so I ordered this “physical component” as soon as it became available, back in December. It wasn’t until February that I received my copy, and, frankly, the results are…interesting.
As the images below show, the “physical component” is a black envelope made of some sort of hard, card stock paper, with a sticker taping it shut, covered in a sealed plastic bag. Said sticker contains the following written warning:
To be read IN ITS ENTIRETY before opening. Actions have consequences! N.T.A.E. may contain subversive elements that produce feelings of euphoria and may be harmful and unsettling to the consumer. Likewise, this physical package may lead to unrealized expectations or unexpected results upon opening. Caution should be exercised with both. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT… This will make a mess. By opening this envelope in any way, you assume all risks to your person and/or property, and waive any claim against the Null Corporation, any of its subsidiaries or affiliated entities from any and all damages or harm you may incur.
If you’ve paid any attention to the reactions about this “physical component” (Pitchfork covered it a while ago here), this thing is infamous now for the black powder that came with the envelope and smeared just about everything. While the above warning (I think) goes more than skin-deep in its meaning (which I’ll try to parse out below), one can’t deny the legal reasoning behind it—this is some messy shit here. When people started receiving their shipments, Twitter was abound with photos of people with black all over their hands and personal belongings, some a bit pissed off at it (despite the warning being right there for them to see). I personally covered my desk with paper towels and proceeded to open the entire package with one hand (so I could take pictures with the other—not an easy task), and still found my hand completely blackened by the end. I thought the powder was actually on the outside of the envelope, but it turns out that it’s mostly inside. All I can say is: thank God for paper towels.
After all is said and done, what exactly was in the NTAE “physical component?” Artwork. Liner notes. Lyrics. Basically, take any NIN album to date, burn the disc it comes with until it is nothing but ashes, and then put the entire thing in a sealed plastic bag. As far as I can tell, all the lyrics to Not The Actual Events are present, and artfully arranged in a way that hearkens back a few different points in the NIN catalog, like The Slip, and The Downward Spiral. For example, the lyrics card for “She’s Gone Away” is written in the same typeface (though heavily distorted) used in The Downward Spiral, and printed beneath the “She’s Gone Away” lyrics are the lyrics for the track “Reptile” from the aforementioned album. I’m honestly note sure what Reznor intends by this, but I don’t think I’d be too far off by saying that this project has been a bit of a trip down memory lane for him—the sound of the EP hearkens back to 90s-era NIN, and the inclusion of the lyrics from the album that is often considered his magnum opus only seems to hint at that more.
Included also is the press-release photo of the duo, and a card containing all the personnel of the EP. (Interesting thing that I didn’t know before this: both Dave Grohl and Dave Navarro—Foo Fighters and Jane’s Addiction, respectively—are listed as having contributed to the EP.) There are seven cards/pieces of art/what have you in all—five cards that seem to represent the five tracks of the EP, and the aforementioned photo and personnel card.
I’m not going to say that my take on this is definitive or the right interpretation. Nine Inch Nails’s output has always seemed to me to be especially open to interpretation, and this is no different. Although much of the band’s lyrical content comes from Reznor’s thoughts and life, it’s never as obvious as, say, the lyrical content of Sun Kil Moon, where Mark Kozelek is apt to drop names and real-life locations—it’s much more abstract, and in that way much more personal in a sense.
Let’s just take a few steps back, though, to December of last year, where Reznor and Ross were being interviewed by Zane Lowe on one of Apple Music’s shows. In this interview, the duo discusses Ross’s initiation as a full-fledged member, the music of Not The Actual Events, and Trent reminisces about some early points in his career, his back catalog, and his relationship with technology (as being part of Apple). However, the most interesting tidbit came from Reznor’s philosophy on modern music and the idea of physical media. To paraphrase, Reznor views streaming, in a way, as a decline of music. Music, to him, has been relegated to the background as opposed to a being a distinct entity that demands one’s full attention. Although NIN’s full catalog is available for streaming on all platforms, he’s also noted that Not The Actual Events’s vinyl release was purposeful, because there is indeed something special about the tactile parts of physical media. Along these lines, he also noted similar reasons for the physical component. Part of what made physical media amazing for Trent Reznor was because he had to sit down and listen to an album in full, and through being patient and aware, he was able to learn from and love the music he was listening to. Adding to all of this, here’s the description of the physical component off of the Nine Inch Nails website:
The intention of this record is for it to exist in the physical world, just like you. Choosing this package gets you the digital files and we will ship the proper physical component to your house for you to deal with, while very limited supplies last.
To me, this physical component, coupled with the fact that Not The Actual Events is intended to be listened to in full, is a statement not only on music, but art in general. Art might have tendrils into the worlds of ideas, and come from the planes of human expression, but it nonetheless exists in some facet on this earth, and we need to be more aware of that fact. While I doubt most of the readers of this article are people that treat music and art as simply commodities, we must go even beyond that and sit and think about what we’re doing and experiencing, instead of using it as a distraction from other things. The powder that comes with this physical component only adds to this: art is messy, and meant to stain, to change things. The positive consequences of art are infinite, but only if we have this awareness with us—otherwise it’s just another song we skip on Spotify, or a painting that we take a quick look at and proceed to go on with our lives without giving a second thought. Music can become muzak so quickly. We need to get dirty, and only when we truly grok the art we love may we clean ourselves off again. To quote the second track of Not The Actual Events, “Dear World”: “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep.” And it’s up to us to wake up.