Sep 4, 2013

Nine Inch Nails: "Hesitation Marks"

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.

No one should be surprised that the element of that triangle most lacking on Hesitation Marks is aggression. While there are flashes of the sonic mayhem that defined much of the Nine Inch Nails catalog in the 90’s, it carries none of the outward rage or fury that made Reznor famous. Part of this comes from his decision to use guitars as background elements, and sparingly at that, but it’s also a natural result of Reznor growing up. As far back as 2005’s With Teeth, Reznor’s age and the ever widening gap between the present and his more reckless past have been in the subtext of a lot of his work, but Hesitation Marks brings it to the surface. The album title may sound like its in line with the self-destructive urges of early NIN, but this record is really about what happens when you stop hating yourself and the process of learning to live with scars. The record is littered with allusions to drug use, being haunted by your past and trying your hardest to change into a better person for the sake of your loved ones. Although not a linear progression like the album’s deliberate opposite, The Downward Spiral, the songs here present the full spectrum of Reznor’s emotional state, from euphoric victory (“Everything”) to bitter cynicism (“Disappointed”).

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.

Grade: B+/A-


*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.

3 comments:

  1. Ian, this is probably the best review I have ever read. I mean that in all seriousness. Also I appreciate the affirmation to buy the album, which I was looking for. Great work. ~Olivia

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    1. Thanks so much! Let me know what you think of the record after you give it a listen!

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