“A middle-aged, more gentle approach to the industrial chaos,” is what David Bowie once said about himself in juxtaposition to the raw, exposed nerve Reznor was during the ‘Downward Spiral’ tour in 1995. With Nine Inch Nails’ latest, ‘Hesitation Marks,’ things are full circle as Reznor is now the middle-aged, gentler approach to his own industrial chaos. But don’t let that fool you. This is still Nine Inch Nails, and Reznor’s firing on all cylinders for the first time since ‘The Fragile.’
For a while it seemed like we may never see another new NIN album. In 2009 Reznor wanted the group to go away for a while since they had been touring and recording non-stop since their return in 2005. Since retiring the band he married, fathered two children, scored two movies (winning both an Oscar and a Golden Globe), and started a new band, How To Destroy Angels, where his wife took center stage. Don’t worry; none of this has caused the potency of Nine Inch Nails to wane. In fact, these experiences have helped him craft the most cohesive and thoughtful album of the second half of his career.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this work and his most well-known work, ‘The Downward Spiral,’ since the artwork was once again created by that album’s artist, Russell Mills. Thematically, the album seems to be a reflection on that chaotic, ruinous time in his life. It’s a snapshot of the man he is now commenting on how he was then and what it took to get to the place he is now in his life.
The overall sound of the record is fascinating. On one hand, you can hear bits and pieces of almost every chapter of his life—electronics married to catchy pop hooks ala ‘Pretty Hate Machine,’ the raw and brooding emotions of ‘The Downward Spiral,’ the exquisite craftsmanship and beauty of ‘The Fragile,’ and even the instrumental finesse refined in his soundtrack work with Atticus Ross and worked into a pop context with How To Destroy Angels. Despite this, ‘Hesitation Marks’ has its own unique sound, both modern yet unlike much of anything else out there right now.
The album kicks off with sparse electronic bleeps and noises titled “The Eater of Dreams” which builds sufficient tension before launching into pre-album release teaser “Copy of A.” Its beat is propulsive and the lyrics are classic Nails. When the song hits the three minute mark it explodes with guitar drones, increased pace, and more tension before letting up a little for Reznor’s voice to break through. The frenzy continues and segues perfectly into the album’s first single, “Came Back Haunted.” It’s interesting that it was released as the lead single, since it doesn’t quite sound like anything else on the rest of the album. It does however retain a very familiar sound, blending guitars and toe-tapping beats with Reznor’s unmistakable voice. This was in some respects a great thing, however it gave me trepidation—would the album consist of “been there, done that” moments? Would Reznor repeat himself?
Thankfully, it was more of a thematic song of return than an indication of overall sound. The next several songs couldn’t be any more different. “Find My Way” is slow and loping, yet has a deep, thumping beat similar to brooding How To Destroy Angels material and manages to fit in the most gorgeous piano work on the record. After the contemplative serenity of that track comes the strange, Prince-like funk of “All Time Low” where Reznor coos in a falsetto, “get down on the floor.” He manages to combine depression and sexy soul talk in a way that makes it the spiritual successor to “Closer.” “Disappointed” has a cold, electronic beat reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s solo material, but elevates itself from this simplicity by layering on strings and echoing guitar sounds.
Brace yourself, because the most uncharacteristically Nine Inch Nails song of the band’s career is next. “Everything” has been reviled by many for its confectionary pop stylings and upbeat sound, but honestly it’s nice to hear him do something so uncharacteristic. He’s having fun and lyrically, it tells the story of the band. It gets loud and chaotic during what would probably be his drug-fueled days, then becomes happy again as he says “wave goodbye to everything,” acknowledging that he’s not the same person he once was. As a standalone it was jarring, but in context of the full album it’s a fun little break from the intensity.
Keep reeling listeners, because he throws another curveball with “Satellite,” which sounds somewhere between the techno-paranoia of ‘Year Zero’ and the dance floor-ready beat of something Justin Timberlake and Timbaland would create. It’s a standout track and will probably make it to my next party mix because the beat is just so undeniable and catchy. “Various Methods of Escape” is an exquisitely beautiful track; it blends a great beat, simple yet effective guitar parts, his plaintive yet emotionally affecting lyrics and epic dynamics. It too is an album highlight.
It’s easy to let the first half of the album steal the spotlight with all the singles and great tracks. You may even gloss over the second half the first time you listen. Give it some time though and it reveals some meticulously crafted songs not as immediately catchy but will offer more in the long term as you discover new textures. Both “Running and “I Would For You” are thickly layered songs that wouldn’t be too out of place on How To Destroy Angels’ ‘Welcome Oblivion’ if it wasn’t for Reznor’s pained vocals at the forefront. “I Would For You” is one of the more guitar-heavy tracks on the record and stands out in the best way possible because of it.
After hitting this gloriously noisy high the album recedes back into quieter contemplation on “While I’m Still Here,” as a sense of wistful sadness creeps into the song, where the man who once wrote “Heresy” says, “God forgive me if I cry,” which is a huge change of tone. The other fascinating thing about this track is the appearance of some saxophone noises near the end. It’s a first for Nine Inch Nails, yet was something Reznor played prior to even starting the band. If this turns out to be the final album from the band, it feels appropriate to end the album with an instrument from his beginnings.
The short instrumental “Black Noise” concludes the album with music similar to that of the previous track, bringing to a close one of the crowning achievements of Trent Reznor’s career. While some of his peers have been content to wallow in adolescent angst, he has found new and fascinating ways to express his feelings; it’s mature yet rings true to the raw and honest nerve that Nine Inch Nails touched over twenty years ago, igniting a generation of music listeners. ‘Hesitation Marks’ is without a doubt one of the finest albums of the band’s career. If you’ve ever been a fan, now’s the time to check in on this old friend and enjoy one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Senior Writer