By Ian Cory
Although Trent Reznor’s hiatus from, and subsequent revival of Nine Inch Nails has earned him a lot of attention, five-year waits in between albums used to be the standard for him. Barring the oddly fertile period from 2005 until the band’s dissolution in 2009, every Nine Inch Nails full length has come roughly five years after the previous one, with only a scattered collection of remix albums, EP’s, and live recordings filling in the radio silence. While Reznor’s late 2000’s work ethic, along with his eager exploration of social media and digital distribution, did wonders for his goodwill with the public, it was also the most uneven period for Nine Inch Nails creatively. This inconsistency continued into Reznor’s activity during the hiatus, which excelled in sonic tinkering but often lacked in immediacy or approachability. The best Nine Inch Nails songs, and subsequently the best albums, all balanced raw aggression, pop accessibility, and stunningly creative manipulation of sound. If Hesitation Marks is anything to judge by, this balance will never be struck perfectly again, but in its absence something new and equally compelling is taking its place.
Fittingly for a record reflecting upon the past, Hesitation Marks often feels like a summation of Reznor’s entire career. It is easily the most groove oriented and danceable Nine Inch Nails record since Pretty Hate Machine*. Tracks like “All Time Low” and “Satellite” are downright funky, featuring swinging brittle drums and Reznor’s falsetto at its most Prince-esque. Not all of the rhythms are as dated however, “Running” draws from the UK garage scene and the lurching mid tempo of “I Would For You” isn’t that far off from modern dubstep. Later in the album, specifically on “In Two” and “Various Methods Of Escape” Reznor works in another classic NIN trick. Both songs drop way down in their bridges, putting Reznor’s voice in the open and gradually building back to the complex melodic layers of the song’s chorus. It’s not a trope unique to Reznor’s songwriting, but filtered through his utterly singular approach to texture these moments are unmistakably part of the reason his more pop oriented songs are so effective.
We routinely ask the impossible of older artists. We need them to reaffirm our love for their older material without repeating themselves. We need them to reinvent their sound without tarnishing what made them good in the first place. Trent Reznor has not achieved the impossible, but it's unlikely he was even trying to. When an artist spends their entire career running forward, by the time they decide to stop and look back they’re still bound to be ahead of everyone else. Hesitation Marks isn’t a retread of old ground. Reznor isn’t digging himself further down the spiral. On the contrary, he’s given us a roadmap on how to climb back up.
*Year Zero and its accompanying remix record are a close second though, especially if you find yourself throwing a party in a post apocalyptic bunker.