The world has hardly ever seen a song dominate a calendar year with the same kind of all-encompassing magnitude as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” For 19 consecutive weeks in 2019 — that’s nearly five full months — his collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus reigned at the top of the charts on its record-breaking path to becoming the longest running No. 1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. The song was practically inescapable.
But what went little noticed at the time of “Old Town Road’s initial release was one of its key building blocks: a snippet of banjo that had been sampled from a track titled “34 Ghosts IV” off of Nine Inch Nails’ ambient quadruple-EP Ghosts I-IV. The project, released in 2008 under a Creative Commons licence, was described by frontman Trent Reznor as a “soundtrack for daydreams.”
Despite the many impressive accolades Reznor had racked up over the course of his career — multiple platinum albums, an Oscar for the Social Network score, and getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — this little banjo bit helped the Nine Inch Nails mastermind secure his first-ever songwriting credit for a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 … and a CMA Award.
“I’d heard maybe the first 20 seconds of it, and it’s like, ‘All right. It sounds like Ghosts with a trap beat,’” Reznor told Billboard last year of Lil Nas X’s hit. “Then it just exploded. I’d heard it now three or four times, and I realized I’d wake up in the morning singing it. It was like, ‘All right, it’s made its way into my brain. It’s catchy.’ And then it was just sitting back in awe for however that went on to infect the world.”
On March 26, a little more than four months after that conversation, Reznor out of nowhere tweeted a link to new albums Ghosts V-VI — the follow-ups to the instrumental project sampled by Lil Nas X — that he and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross had been quietly working on.
The first of the new releases, Ghosts V: Together, is the more elegant-sounding of the pair. Its eight tracks comprise a whimsical sonic world in which you can escape the grip of anxiety and fear for at least 70-minutes of the day. Ghosts VI: Locusts, on the other hand, sounds more like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic future in which everything has gone completely and totally off the rails. In other words, it’s a fitting soundtrack for the current global pandemic.
“Music has always had a way of making us feel a little less alone in the world…and hopefully it does for you, too,” Reznor and Ross wrote in a letter about their new releases posted on NIN.com. “Remember, everyone is in this thing together and this too shall pass.”
While most people will simply throw either Ghosts V or Ghosts VI on and go about their day washing dishes, walking the dog, or obsessively refreshing Twitter to get the latest coronavirus updates, there’s also a bevy of audiophiles and producers who are surely parsing through each and every second of this combined 153-minute, all-instrumental behemoth, looking for tiny building blocks to use as they create songs of their own. Perhaps with the right mix of luck, talent, inspiration and elbow grease, one of those tunes could become a hit single.
Nine Inch Nails has certainly given everyone a lot to play with here. Both albums are loaded with musical moments big and small that cry out and demand to be heard through the dense aural miasma that Reznor and Ross have woven together. As you might expect, the material from Ghosts V: Together is much lighter and altogether more pleasant. There’s certainly a lot of fodder for the pop-minded creatives to parse through.
Piano melodies — like the one introduced around the two-minute mark of “Out In the Open” or three minutes into “Apart” — twinkle and shimmer like high-quality diamonds in soot-caked mantle. The escalating guitar riff at the center of “Still Right Here” strikes a sanguine note as it drives into a wall of frenetic, electronic blips. And the subdued, synth melody at the heart of “With Faith” comes across like a small transmission from a tranquil world far, far away to remind us that everything might just end up being OK. It’s all perfect fodder for the thousands of bedroom pop and indie artists toying around at home with their favorite looping plug-ins.
If you were forced to describe the overall tone of Ghosts V in a single word, “atmospheric” comes screaming to mind. It’s a record largely devoid of any type of drums or percussive elements, where the breathy sounds rise like the morning sun, reach their noontime crescendo, and decay into the horizon. Never does this dynamic come into play with as much stunning clarity than on the opening track “Letting Go While Holding On.” Then again, “With Faith” is another superb example. Any number of inventive trip-hop or psych artists could build an incredible array of eye-widening soundscapes over these lush, ambient soundscapes.
Ghosts VI, on the other hand, is a rap producer’s demented Candyland. “The Cursed Clock” and “Trust Fades” both brim with menacing, minor-key discord that shares a lot of unsettling DNA with the best of John Carpenter’s score from Halloween. Haunted trumpets wail and rage all across “Run Like Hell.” The grating sound of a creaking metal on “Another Crashed Car” sends chills up and down the spine. Meanwhile, the clamor of swelling static dumped into the center of “Almost Dawn” sounds like an enormous malevolent monster chomping at the frayed edges of the universe.
There’s also moments of sheer, unsettling beauty. The opening piano figure on “The Worriment Waltz,” for instance, weeps by its lonesome, begging to be married to a lo-fi trap beat and sub-woofer bursting bass lines. Throw in a few verses about any number of bummer-inducing themes — loneliness, isolation, paranoia — and you’ve just created a potentially interesting underground SoundCloud cut. To be quite honest, any number of these parts could make for something special in the right hands, and with the proper sample-clearance paperwork.
So will either Ghosts V: Together or Ghosts VI: Locusts give the artists of the world enough material to craft a world record-beating hit on par with “Old Town Road”? Honestly, the chances of that happening are infinitesimally small. Phenomena are phenomena for a reason, and it’s most likely going to be a long, long time before another track comes along that can even come close to matching the runaway success of Lil Nas X’s megahit.
That being said, can Nine Inch Nails’ latest works lay the foundation for the creation of a wide set of diverse and interesting music in any number of genres? History has already shown that the answer to that question is a wild and resounding “yes.”