As a passionate fan of Trent Reznor's music for nearly a quarter-century, I knew this review would be quite an undertaking, but now the time has come to step up and swing. My initial thrill came early this year, when Nine Inch Nails' founder announced that his legendary band would not only be returning to the stage in 2013 after a four-year hiatus (and five years away from the studio), but had already been at work on the new album Hesitation Marks, so the excitement and anticipation was understandably high. The title, which refers to the tenuous flesh wounds made by someone contemplating suicide, suggested we were about to visit another very dark corner of Reznor's psyche – an idea reinforced by the return of mixed media artist Russell Mills, who created the cover for the band's darkest, most emotionally devastating album The Downward Spiral.
But then came that inevitable nagging feeling that perhaps the sun may have already set on NIN's reign as an explosive electro-rock powerhouse – especially following the sublime, ambient and daydreamy tone that had begun to dominate Reznor's work since the release of Ghosts in 2008 and became something of a signature sound through his Golden Globe-winning score (with fellow NIN member Atticus Ross) for David Fincher's The Social Network in 2010 – the same year he launched the project How To Destroy Angels (with wife Mariqueen Maandig, Ross and visual artist Rob Sheridan). Don't get me wrong; it was brilliant new music, and Ghosts contains some of my favorite NIN instrumental works ever. But would the band who shattered skulls and melted hearts with emotionally raw songs like “Wish,” “Closer” and “Hurt” be able to catch that lightning in a bottle again? Well, this is the week I was going to find out.
The first new single “Came Back Haunted” was a positive sign, recalling the simple but powerful electronic foundations Reznor introduced with NIN's debut album Pretty Hate Machine, and it felt like he'd found that spark again. Better still, Trent teamed up with legendary director David Lynch for a baffling and creepy video, which allowed Lynch to revisit some artistic concepts he hadn't really explored in motion since Eraserhead in 1977.
The follow-up single “Copy of A” was another winner, flipping from a bouncy dance rhythm into more aggressive electro-riffs, bringing urgency to an otherwise warm and soothing beat. Suddenly things took a confusing left turn with the release of "Everything,” which incorporated oddly upbeat pop-rock elements that, while definitely a bold new direction, baffled the hell out of long-time fans... yours truly included. Oddly enough, after a couple of listens, the track did end up growing on me, and it does retain many distinct NIN signatures that give it a decided edge over most radio-friendly singles – something they pulled off very well in the mid-'90s, when their tracks got major mainstream airplay (even if some of the lyrics got bleeped).
Once I'd digested those first small and fairly tasty portions, it finally came time for the main course... and well, damn. Trent managed to surprise me again, even after all these years. Hesitation Marks is filled with intimate, personal material, and as NIN albums before it, casts a blazing light on Reznor's own life experiences, for better or worse. While it seems like the current phase has been a lot more pleasant for Trent then his journeys into the abyss depicted in classics like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, there's still some raw soul-bearing at work on this record. Elements of the past seem to trickle down through the opening of the album, with the pulsing noise intro "The Eater of Dreams" reminiscent of the prologue “Pinion” from Broken. There's even an echo of “Hurt” in the intimate piano ballad "Find My Way," but despite its clear message of anguish, there's a tiny thread of optimism working its way through; it's also a beautifully arranged piece, slowly building harmonic layers toward the chorus, then tearing those steps back down again.
The straight pop-rock island of “Everything” gives way to the more hypnotic domain of the second half, with those familiar buzz-saw guitar riffs traded for thick, ambient washes and drifting chords. The beats are the dominant element here – standouts include the sensual, bump-and-grind throb of “All Time Low,” which features a funky riff by King Crimson's Adrian Belew (who made similar contributions to Ghosts) and ascends into an airy, cosmic coda; the blips and snap-kick beat of "Satellite" follow a similar pattern, but take a much darker turn. A much-needed infusion of energy comes with the higher tempo of "Running," which blends vocals and synths to create an alien-like presence.
The album peaks with the two tracks that follow: the lush, cinematic "I Would for You," which elegantly segues into the high-tension metallic beats of "In Two,” featuring an amazing chorus layering Reznor's strongest vocals (including a pristine falsetto) and the classic NIN “slow-burn” breakdown, followed by a soaring payoff. The closing tracks "While I'm Still Here" & ”Black Noise” form a more pensive conclusion, with minimal drone-and-click instrumentation (until a saxophone comes in for a surprise visit in the second half), but the first is lyrically strong, conveying a sense of doom while still clinging to that tiny thread of hope we first heard in “Find My Way”... Trent's final whisper of “I'm still here” is ultimately consumed by a whirlwind of feedback that finally crumbles to pieces.
Those of you looking for the next Downward Spiral won't find it here, but Hesitation Marks is still a worthy entry in a distinctive and unique body of work, which manages to tap into the primitive forces that first brought the NIN beast to lurching, twitching life, while bringing aboard a more hypnotic vibe that is not nearly as violent, but still emotionally jarring... and while it's every inch (no pun intended) a Nine Inch Nails record, it's also accessible, even well outside of the industrial rock realm. Maybe that's the only real way Reznor and company could remain relevant, especially given his fear of recycling himself into meaninglessness – a concern he expresses lyrically in “Copy of A.” If he's really worried about that fate, he shouldn't be yet... and neither should you.
Even my concerns about the band signing to a mega-label (Columbia) were soothed a bit when I found out Reznor is continuing the tradition of offering his music in just about every audio format available. There are multiple variants of Hesitation Marks out there, each with distinctive artwork from Russell Mills: they include a deluxe CD edition featuring a creepy, organ-backed remix of "Find My Way," a massive, cosmic interpretation of "All Time Low" by prog-rock legend Todd Rundgren (the opening vocals will blow your mind) that surpasses the original version, and the “Howler” mix of "While I'm Still Here" featuring Throbbing Gristle co-founder and industrial music icon Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The Japanese edition features a remix of “Everything,” and the vinyl version of the standard release is mastered especially for that format.
There are even multiple digital versions: the “standard” master, with the audio compressed to push loudness levels as high as possible, and the “audiophile” master which is available for free when you buy a digital copy directly from the band's web store. The audiophile version has a much wider dynamic range, allowing subtle changes in tone and texture that you can't hear on the compressed version. It's my preferred choice, as the so-called “loudness war” annoys the hell out of me, and so I salute frequent NIN collaborator Alan Moulder and mixing engineer Tom Baker for their excellent work on this mix. The iTunes digital edition is also bundled with a 42-minute interview with Reznor, which is a must-have for serious fans.
At the end of this month, Nine Inch Nails will embark on their "Tension 2013" tour, their first full-scale North American tour since 2009, and you can get the most current list of dates and venues at their official site... but first, check out this behind-the-scenes footage showing the crew testing the new stage design and multimedia presentation (always a hallmark of a NIN show), and the band in rehearsals.