It’s hard to say where Trent Reznor, or Nine Inch Nails, will end up in the annals of rock history. At first, NIN was a caustic assault, one built on a musical seesaw of industrial, and metal. Time went on, Reznor mellowed, focusing more on his artistic side than his rage. Over the last decade, Reznor and NIN have seen more hoopla over the way they release their records, than what’s on them. There was 2007’s interactive Year Zero, and then I-IV and The Slip, which were released through more forward thinking methods.
In 2009 Reznor announced a Nine Inch Nails hiatus. He pumped out two albums with How To Destroy Angels, as well as embarking on a successful composing career. The journey that started with Reznor screaming “Head Like A Hole”, seemed complete. So, what next? How would NIN retain relevance after five years? Perhaps Reznor would resign to a major label. Cue Hesitation Marks, the latest NIN studio offering (the band is now on Columbia), and a curious bit of sparse musicianship.
Reznor has never shied away from being self-referential. Most of his lyrics are about him, and usually start with “I” or “I’m” or “I Am”. However, unlike the earlier work, which looked at anger, depression, insanity or addiction, Hesitation Marks has Reznor questioning himself, not just lyrically, but also in the music. Replacing the bursts of depressive sadness, or determined aggression, are songs built around electronic hiccups, melancholy synths, and dark atmospheres.
In “Copy Of A”, Reznor claims, “I am a copy, of a copy, of a copy/Everything I say has come before”. Reznor questions his own originality over a music bed texturized with beats you’d expect from Die Antwoord, if produced by John Carpenter. Is Reznor using an easy dance song to look inside himself? That notion, puts into question the idea of a pop icon questioning his influence. Reznor has always enjoyed playing both sides of the analytical coin.
Regardless of the deeper meaning that might be hiding within the drum-boogie of “Copy Of A”, it clues us in that NIN will be demonstrating some restraint here. Hesitation Marks won’t be angry shots of industrial, but it also won’t be Goth shots of depression theme music. Reznor is building these songs from the ground up, and attempting not to reuse too many old parts. The relaxed trip-hop vibe of “Find My Way”, leads into the robotic funk of “All Time Low”, which manages to avoid being “Closer II Electric Boogaloo” via Reznor’s odd vocal choices.
“Disappointed” is a swirling bit of NIN magic. Based largely on feedback clashing against a lush string section, “Disappointed” is a finger-snapping, eclectic, dance party. “Satellite” is another stand out jam. Reznor sings in hush tones over a beat you’d think belonged to M.I.A. instead of NIN. Even as drop-your-rump as the beat is, Reznor adds enough of his own touches to give it life. When Reznor nails his ideas, the Jenga style of songwriting in Hesitation Marks coalesces beautifully. Making the failed songs even harder to endure.
Lets start with “Electric”. It’s hard to guess where this song came from, or why Reznor wanted to shoehorn an overly bright slice of guitar pop into his electronic symphony. If I wanted to hear a Fat Wreck-Chords band covering NIN, I’d seek that out. There’s no reason for Reznor to hand it over. “Various Methods Of Escape” skates a little too close to well-worn NIN material, and “I Would For You” is just straight boring. If music still existed in an era where singles were king, “I Would For You” is a B-Side, and not one sought after by record collectors.
“In Two” is another clunker, leading into “While I’m Still Here”. I’m assuming this was supposed to be the come down track, the tune that chilled us out after the digital roller coaster. Problem is, the songs before “While I’m Still Here” drags the momentum down, so instead of release, there’s just ho-hum. Even more infuriating is how good the bookended instrumental “Black Noise” is. Ambient, dark, and tense, “Black Noise” is a wonderful slice of Reznor’s brain. There needed to be more of this in the latter half of Hesitation Marks. Then we’d be looking at a near perfect album.
Flawed as it is, Hesitation Marks is still better than most of the work coming out of the genre. Trent Reznor has grown into a composer, even when dealing with electronics and drum machines. That eye towards expansion, which sometimes fails him, is why Reznor continues to be relevant. Hesitation Marks is not the most completely satisfying album NIN has ever released, but it shows that Reznor is always pushing his creative boundaries. In a world of Mumford And Sons and Rascal Flatts, that is something to be celebrated.