Since its release in 2008, this album has been my go-to soundtrack for when I am writing. Ghosts I-IV is a four-volume, 36 track, two hour sensory experience of varying instrumentals, aptly described by Trent Reznor as “a soundtrack for daydreams.” Some tracks are beautifully melodic with soft piano or lightly plucking bass or banjo, while others are hard-driven and filled with the industrial static noise that Nine Inch Nails fans love. Those familiar with The Fragile and Still, two of the album’s predecessors, will find similar textures here. Actually, many tracks will be reminiscent of past NIN songs that the astute fan will recognize, and the entire journey seems something of a recap of NIN over its nearly twenty-year life up to that point. However, it offers fresh and unexpected turns as well, and the devout listener will easily remain engaged. In some ways the album thematically works as a continuation of Year Zero, the band’s previous release, particularly if one considers the sounds to be the consequences of that album’s last track, “Zero Sum.” That song suggests a catastrophic end, perhaps even human annihilation, and the title of Ghosts could suggest the aftermath, and may account for there being no lyrics (for there are no people). Regardless, the album stands strongly on its own.
Unlike the instrumentals in The Fragile or in Still, Trent Reznor and company do not dwell on any one melody or rift for very long, and seem at times quick to move onto the next segue for a new texture. Reznor is well-known for placing creative restrictions on himself to produce music in a new way, and I would not be surprised if this were related to another restriction. The exception to this is Ghosts IV, my personal favorite, in which the music is allowed to meander and explore more varying avenues on a continuous theme. Overall, the entire album is a mature and calculated work that still retains a sense of creative spontaneity.
And like any good ghost, the album has experienced an interesting afterlife. It was the first NIN release after their departure from Interscope Records. After receiving critical praise it garnered two Grammy nominations, a first for music released under a Creative Commons license. More oddly, “34 Ghosts IV” was sampled for a beat and then used in the 2018 Lil Nas X earworm “Old Town Road.” For legal reasons, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were given writing credits. The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and even earned both men a Country Music Association Awards nomination for Musical Event of the Year. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, NIN released two follow-up installments, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, free to download on their website.