Coming Back Around: NIN Returns with “Hesitation Marks”
September 28, 2013 · Print This Article
It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a recording artist come into maturity. So many musicians are either consumed by the self-destructive tendencies of celebrity and the parasitic music industry in which they find themselves, or else they take the gentler path, fading into complacency and producing formulaic records that become mere shadows of their earlier vitality. But Hesitation Marks, the eighth studio album by Nine Inch Nails, marks a genuine transition into maturity for front man Trent Reznor. And while it reflects the more nuanced perspective of a 48-year-old father of two who has become a master of his craft, it manages to do so without losing the energy and passion that marked his early career.
Reznor has gotten back to basics, in a sense, stripping down his music to its most essential components. As always, he showcases his considerable talents as a producer and sound designer, juxtaposing sections of overpowering noise with quiet acoustic elements, bursts of aggressive guitars over drum machine beats, and carefully crafted synthesizer sounds that range from chaotic to sublime. His catchy hooks and song structures reflect a pop sensibility that is rare in industrial music. But if the overall sound is familiar, his approach is far more minimal this time around, and the record manages to be all the more compelling for it.
This is evident from the album’s first lyrical track, “Copy of a.” Gone are the thick textures and heavy guitars that permeated much of his previous release, 2008′s The Slip. The first musical notes we hear are a fast, sequenced bass line, reminiscent of his first album, the seminal Pretty Hate Machine. One by one, sparse new parts are added, layering sounds in a way that feels more appropriate for the dance floor than at a coliseum, until the song reaches a frenetic crescendo.
On tour, Reznor opens with this track, borrowing from the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense Tour, by appearing alone on stage and being joined by additional musicians as each part comes in. But there is more than theatrics to this; it feels like a reset to NIN’s career. In the four years since Reznor announced he was taking a break from the project, he has had two children, worked on film scores (including his Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Social Network), and started a new side project, How to Destroy Angels, with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig.
Now we are introduced to the new Trent Reznor, and it sounds quite a bit like the old version of him — “a copy of a copy of a copy,” as he sings over the electronic rhythm section. But like digital artifacts or genetic mutations over generations, this copy of a copy introduces new elements into Nine Inch Nails’ music, and these mutations appear to be for the better.
For one thing, this record conveys a greater sense of humility, a quality his earlier works often lacked. This is most clearly expressed in “Find My Way,” a tender, heartfelt prayer that would sound perfectly natural sung by an old-time gospel ensemble. “Well my path has gone astray. I’m just trying to find my way… I have made a great mistake. Pray the Lord, my soul to take,” Reznor sings, seemingly without irony.
This is a far cry from the nihilistic rants of his Downward Spiral days, when lyrics such as “God is dead and no one cares” were common.
He continues this theme on the album’s penultimate track, “While I’m Still Here,” explicitly borrowing a line from Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues From Waitin’.”
“Oh all the things that might have been… God forgive me if I cry,” Reznor sings in tribute to a long tradition of tragic American ballads.
At other times, he appears defiant in his embrace of life. On the unapologetically upbeat “Everything,” Reznor sings triumphantly, “I have survived everything… I am whole, I am free. I am whole, I can see.”
No doubt this more mature and decidedly less rage-filled perspective will alienate many NIN fans. But that’s not to say that Reznor has entirely abandoned his former depressive nihilism. Songs like “Disappointed” and “I Would For You” stay true to tradition, maintaining a steady veneer of self-loathing and existential angst. It’s not that these qualities ever completely disappear from his music. If anything, a sense of disappointment and depression remain the background atmosphere of all Reznor’s music. But against that background, he appears to have found a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
At times, he appears to struggle with the incongruity of this newfound perspective. On “Came Back Haunted,” the album’s first single, he sings “Everywhere now reminding me, I am not who I used to be. I’m afraid this has just begun.” He seems haunted by his past, and particularly by the expectations placed on him to be who he once was.
He comes back to this theme on one of the albums most compelling tunes, “Various Methods of Escape,” saying, “I’ve gotta let go. I’ve gotta get straight. Why’d you have to make it so hard? Let me get away.”
Hesitation Marks is also one of the most experimental albums he’s recorded in years. He reached out to some unconventional collaborators, including Adrian Belew of King Crimson fame, and Fleetwood Mac guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham. Unfortunately, the creative partnership with Belew ultimately fizzled (he quit the band three months into rehearsing for their upcoming tour, saying on his Facebook page, simply, “It didn’t work”).
Reznor says that he was thinking about The Downward Spiral throughout the time he was writing this album, keenly aware that it had been 20 years since that record propelled his career into mainstream popularity and critical acclaim. He even brought back artist Russell Mills who had designed the cover for it. If anything, there is a sort of symmetry to the two albums. “Hesitation Marks” feels like Nine Inch Nails’ re-introduction to the music world. While “The Downward Spiral” presented a narrative of an artist in free fall, succumbing to addiction, self-loathing, and suicidal urges, this new record shows him coming out the other side of that spiral, alive, mature, humble, and purposeful. –Jim Genaro, Contributing Writer