With ‘Ghosts V and VI,’ Nine Inch Nails Capture the Collective Consciousnes

Trent Reznor released the largely ambient “Ghosts: I-IV in 2008, and described it as “a soundtrack for daydreams.” Over a decade later, circumstances have made accumulated recordings especially relevant. Reznor and Atticus Ross, who has been a member of Nine Inch Nails since 2013’s “Hesitation Marks,” although both admitted introverts, have recently professed a newfound appreciation for the human connection of which we now find ourselves deprived. Consequently, they hastened to finish up a wealth of recordings, and have released them as two albums that speak of the times we are in. “Ghosts V: Together” calms and consoles us in our collective plight, whereas “Ghosts VI: Locusts” betrays our lingering fears. 

“Ghosts V” begins with “Letting Go While Holding On,” which has an appropriate title, in light of current affairs. Life as we know it has come to a grinding halt, and we’re clinging on tenuously, working from home, and interacting online. Layers of humming, rumbling drones ascend and retreat, and there enters a typical Trent Reznor treated piano — like the one in “Closer” — a simple childish melody in an unsettling tone. Amorphous chime-like sounds disappear into accumulating noise, and a beautifully chaotic haze of repetitive, overlapping patterns blends toward a single indiscrete tone. As Reznor sang in 1999, “We’re in this together now.”

The title track is especially soothing in a new age way, with cloudy piano drifting over gently expanding and contracting sounds. Tones vaguely like voices, but more like synth instruments, mess with your perception, building and dissipating into rumble and static. “Out In the Open” is feedback-drenched with pulsating ghost tones and murmurs, each melody blurred and muddied, with a wearing lullaby, as in a snowglobe winding down. By the end of “With Faith,” the piano lines have taken fanciful turns, and the sound is carnivalesque but removed. “Apart” brings a buildup that seems like it will go on forever. The inevitable piano enters, and curves out arches and rays. Measured, swelling feedback meshes with an extended voice tone, raising questions about the blurred lines between people and machines. With live streaming having become the default, the lines have never been blurrier. Synth bass ripples near the end make a major impact amid so much negative space.

“Your Touch” is a standout, the busiest track yet, with dial-up internet-style electronic noise, restlessly octave-shifting in whimsical melodical detours, exhibiting freedom within loose parameters. “Hope We Can Again” is, as you might expect, immensely peaceful and zenlike, with encouraging melody and ambiance, soothing in both tone and tune. Finally, “Still Right Here” brings a particular type of distorted guitar tone that has featured in Brian Eno’s music since “Here Come the Warm Jets,” dating back past his ambient days. Midway, a beat drops, and after an hour of ambient music, you can just imagine the cathartic release.An industrial grind of skittering drums recalls classic Nine Inch Nails, and makes for an exhilarating experience, only to eventually assume a near constant tone, as if cut to static, then fade out gradually.

From the first moments of opener “The Cursed Clock,” “Ghosts VI” is a decidedly different affair, more up front and menacing. A creeping piano line runs through almost serialist melodies, and takes tangential, dizzying vibrations and whirls. At once, there’s an atmosphere of tension, a  feeling of something hovering in the distance, ever unattainable. The eeriness continues on “Around Every Corner,” with a serpentine, meandering melody sketching out a fractured, ominous soundscape. An unanticipated trumpet enters, and remerges on the following track, “The Worriment Waltz,” as a piano motif speeds and slows on whim — as we might find ourselves now, idling our time away. The muffled trumpet sounds like something one might hear on a street corner, except a few levels removed — virtual, perhaps. The overall sound recalls Ulver’s redefining album “Perdition City.” 

“Run Like Hell” especially echoes moments from Reznor’s and Ross’ score for “The Social Network.” A subdued, vaguely tribal, entrancing pulse gives way to crashing drums, over which  horns soars in free jazz revelry. Reverb and feedback swells into tabla-like percussive resonance. “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” is a discordant racket, with metallic clashes and swells of noise in maddening repetition — the sound of claustrophobia. “Another Crashed Car” takes this further, with a severely unsettling, creaking, scraping sound that keeps repeating. Reznor has employed noises like this since the days of “The Downward Spiral” — think back to “Ruiner.” The horrid sound persists over a placid, subdued, melodic backdrop, testing our patience in one of the most effective expressions of the collective feeling.

Hollow, sinister sounds blend into didgeridoo-type, amorphous, whistling tones on “Temp Fix.” “Trust Fades” is a Byzantine entanglement of layered, shifting and intersecting piano lines. Again, there is a mix of tension and calm, with echoes of “Together” in long, sustained washes, but with unresolved melodies hovering above. “A Really Bad Night” conjures a scene of practicing piano meditatively, alone on a dark night, as spirits lurk. “Your New Normal” should make you stop in your tracks, merely because of its title — please let it not be the case. A spidery, cryptic, entrancing melody weaves through eerie pads, encountering buzzes and bells. “Just Breathe” is all dust and detritus, evoking a desolate wasteland and the feeling of uncertainty — waiting indefinitely in empty space and time, six feet away from everyone and with no end in sight.

Reznor and Ross have long appreciated and effectively utilized the space between notes, and this album is largely an exercise in negative space, particularly on tracks like “Right Behind You.” By the point of the wonderfully titled “Turn This Off Please,” one might reasonably think, “Finally,” as so much darkness can be hard to take. The track introduces a machine loop, all gears and clamps, rust and grime, that goes on and on, as swirling, enduring, distant sounds fill the backdrop. The loop never stops, although it fades just to tease and resurface. As people speculate about the COVID-19 becoming a seasonal phenomenon, warranting a cycle of social distancing periods and normal periods, this track strikes a nerve, and compels you to plead, “Please make this stop!”

Inactivity leads to lethargy, and people are definitely at least tiring of the current circumstances. Reznor and Ross pick up on the sentiment with “So Tired,” in which a reverberating piano relentlessly marches on. In the end, it appears nearly everything has been destroyed, and all that is left is a loop of seemingly incompatible sounds. There’s light at the end yet, or so we might hope, judging from the promisingly titled closer, “Almost Dawn,” which veers back toward the calmer sounds of “Together.” There persists an ominous feel, however, with a struggling pulse, obscured by increasing static, building to a sudden halt, whereupon calmer tones linger unresolved. 

Who knows where we go from here? Will Reznor and Atticus follow up with “Ghosts VII: Armageddon” or “Ghosts VII: Zen?” It might depend on whether it’s “Ghosts V” or “Ghosts VI” that turns out to ring more true. At any rate, the pair make for a stirring listening experience, and effectively capture the tumult of the times. As we wait, withdrawn and isolated, we enjoy some respite from the usual daily grind, and find some solace in our shared helplessness. This is the concept of “Together.” On the other hand, we are not out of the woods — perhaps not even in the woods yet. And with no clear end in sight, we might face our fears in the dismal and chilling sounds of “Locusts.” The combination of calm and tension is not only representative, but also therapeutic, validating our collective concerns, and guiding our consciousness as we embark further down this murky road.

Ghosts V: Together” and “Ghosts VI: Locusts” are both available March 26 on Apple Music.