Album Review: Hesitation Marks, by Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor’s great career inquiry, post-The Fragile (1999), has been thus: how does one transition from the the noisome trappings of raw, teenage angst into an adult sphere without coming across as exaggerated and ridiculous? His solutions have have been a mixed bag: With Teeth half-baked, Ghosts I-IV spotty, The Slip texturally interesting if conceptually underwhelming, Year Zero inventively capitalizing on the dystopian zeitgiest with Bomb Squad brio, soundtracks co-scored with Atticus Ross for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network creative, commercial, and critical successes. By the time How To Destroy Angels – a project featuring Reznor, Ross, Rob Sheridan, and Mariqueen Maandig, Reznor’s wife – emerged to dash expectations that trainspotters had way, way too high, Reznor seemed to have everything figured out. Then he went and resurrected Nine Inch Nails after a several-year hiatus, uncalibrating his own calculus and everybody else’s in the process.
Already being slagged in reviews for its perceived uneventfulness, for Reznor’s restrained vocals, for daring, on “Everything,” to flaunt something approaching deliriously bubblegum pop-punk, Hesitation Marks (Columbia) represents both a retrench and re-think of what Nine Inch Nails is. This is Adult Contemporary Nine Inch Nails, subtle, curated Nine Inch Nails, Nine Inch Nails with swear words on only one track. Where the charge of this music once came from the vengeful three-tiered lash of acidic synthesizers, flambe’d guitars, and Reznor’s red-hot coal of a vocal, today the juice is more compositional, stemming from immaculately produced interplays of electronics and live performance. Note how the polyphonic snarl “In Two” explodes into a jazz-improv noise freakout at the end, how the brooding, churning “I Would For You” dissolves into watercolor pianos. “The Eater of Dreams” stages a tense symphony of drones and pinpricks. “All Time Low” – that’s the song with the swears – serves up juked, goose-stepping funk that’s just short of lecherous. “Black Noise” is as advertised, and that’s no bad thing.
Upfront, “Running” presents as a stalking anthem, though it’s more likely a companion narrative to security-state bird flip “Satellite.” Yet the sound of the song is more interesting than the sense of heightened paranoia it’s intended to communicate, from the pop-pop-pop percussion to the corkscrewed scraps of sound to a stretch, late in the song, where the coked-up textures seem primed to run roughshod over a half-dozen Reznors rambling. Songs like “Running” and “Copy of A,” with its rippling, pensive melodies, merge the edgy experimentation of the soundtracks with vicious pop smarts, a combination that sounds heavenly through headphones.
But if you need Hesitation Marks to actually be about shit in a rockist way, the album works that way, too, sort of, tracing a rough journey from a failed suicide (“The Eater of Dreams”) to dissociative episodes (“Copy of A”) to grown-bro lust (“All Time Low”) and then into some sort of victorious redemption (“Everything”) that relapses into madness and disarray on Side B. But the real, actual arc is larger and deeper, one where a celebrated studio rat who’s weathered major label shenanigans, drug addiction, self doubt, and crippling procrastination to earn the happily-ever-after of fatherhood and the right to cut 14 tracks that take more than a few listens to sink their Freddie Kruger claws in.