Coming Back Around: NIN Returns with “Hesitation Marks”

September 28, 2013

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.”

Nine+Inch+Nails

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

Under the Covers: Kendra Morris’ ‘Mockingbird’

September 6, 2013

Covers are a common staple of music. It’s hard to find a band that hasn’t covered another artist’s work, whether it’s purely for live performance purposes, or typically as a bonus track on an album. Soul singer Kendra Morris has completely blown all stereotypes apart with the release of her second album, Mockingbird.

The entire album is covers, ranging from artists such as The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd to Metallica and Lou Reed. It’s an ambitious venture for someone as fresh in the music world as Morris, but she pulls it off spectacularly.

It’s fascinating how Morris can take these songs and make them her own. A song may start and sound like just her, without a hint of the actual original in it. If you don’t know it’s a cover you may not realize it until you hear a line from the original that you recognize. When that realization hits though, it’s a wonderful moment.

The album opens with “Space Oddity,” one of David Bowie’s most easily recognizable tunes.

It’s a good start to a good album, very soulful. It’s not as ‘strange’ as Bowie’s rendition, and that’s almost a little refreshing in this case. Elements of the ‘space’ theme can still be felt in the sound of the instrumentation and Morris’ vocals, particularly in her harmony.

Her cover of “As Long As I’ve Got You” may be the one track on the album that strays the least from the original. It’s still a great tune and she does the song justice, but it’s not really all that interesting in comparison the some of the other work she’s done on the album.

The third track on Mockingbird, The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” is a good choice as far as her style goes. It’s got a great groove, and the Stones’ music translates really well into her genre. As the Stones’ biggest disco-era hit, “Miss You” has an obvious disco influence, which Morris uses to her advantage.

She does away with any notion of harmonica in the song and opting instead for a crunchy guitar with a ‘wa’ distortion. It’s a solid track, and compared to the Stones’ original, it gains some strength where they at times faltered.

Morris next covers Dionne Warwick’s hit “Walk On By.” It’s a big departure from the original, filled with sharp drumbeats and moaning guitars. It’s a good track, but a lot more interesting if you’re familiar with the original.

Morris’ talent is apparent through the album, but so too are the talents of her band members, and never more so in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a cover of one of Pink Floyd’s most memorable and musically complex songs. Morris opens the song with a long period of vocalization, perhaps nodding to Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky” from Dark Side of the Moon.

The cover itself doesn’t stretch any boundaries with the song, which would arguably be an impressive feat if Morris was able to, but that doesn’t detract at all from the quality of the song. It’s a refreshing modern take on the song, less filled with acid-y waves of sound and more focused on the wailing, flowing nature of the song.

Morris’ next great moment is the rather unexpected cover of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. Most people know the song as a happy, peppy, somewhat comical song featuring some very intense Scottish accents. It’s a staple of the 1980’s. Morris’ take on the song is none of these things.

It’s lustful, passionate, and a little dark. It’s not the happy-sounding jam that anyone expects. It’s also the only track on the album to feature a male voice, in the form of someone whom the tracklist names as Godforbid. It’s a very different take on the song, but it makes you want to sway and dance in a way that The Proclaimers’ version never did.

Following her cover of The Proclaimers, Morris makes a turn in a different direction, taking on Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”

Morris has this incredibly capacity for taking songs that are a little ‘strange’ and using that strange influence to fuel her own style. It may not be the most exciting cover on the album, but “Karma Police” is an interesting take and it’ll catch your attention easily if you know any Radiohead.

Possibly the most surprising and definitely the biggest departure from the original is Morris cover of “Ride the Lightning” by Metallica.

It might be one of the greatest highlights of the album.

MorrisHer interpretation of the song is just incredible. What originally was a gritty powerhouse of mid 80’s Metallica, in Morris’ hands becomes jazzy, soulful, and a little theatrical. The emotion of the song is dark, like Metallica’s original, but also features a kind of punky flair in Morris’ voice. It’s overwhelming how good her cover is. Even as a standalone, it’s a great tune, but in the context of where the song comes from, it’s just amazing how anyone could get her style of song out of something so vastly different.

The album also features a cover of Julie London’s “Cry Me A River” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side,” both solid takes on the original songs, before diving into another surprise.

Her cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” begins with an Animals-esque synthesizer and then striking a warbling note on guitar and ushering in Morris’ vocals. It’s another track that translates well from the original into her style. Chris Cornell has a vocal quality and style that is already similar to Morris’ own. It’s obvious what song it is, but Morris does make it her own.

While Soundgarden made the song dark and depressing and a little bit trippy, Morris fills it with longing, making it almost a song about missing someone.

It’s still amazing how she can change the songs she covers in the album.

Mockingbird is an ambitious move for Morris, and a little bit foolish. Die-hard fans of the bands she covers are very protective of the songs they claim, and likely to have criticisms to make. Even if that is the case, it’s certainly gaining attention, and she deserves it for the way she crafts her versions of the songs. - Jordan B. Frye, Assistant Editor @jordanbfrye

When Exactly Will We See a New U2 Album?

September 4, 2013

For the past year, the majority of speculation and statements from actual U2 band members has indicated that fans should expect a new album to be released sometime this year.

Over the past few days however, rumors have been flying wild that this may not be true after all. In a recent radio interview in Ireland, Bono spoke briefly on the album’s state of readiness.

“I think we’re nearly there… I’d like to think that next year there will be a U2 release.”

Despite the confidence of Bono’s statement, it still raises quite a few questions. U2 have a reputation for taking their time with their work.

This news may need to be taken with a grain of salt. With the way these things can go, we could still be looking at an album release this later year in spite of what Bono has said on the matter. At this point, for all anyone knows the band could be attempting to throw fans off the scent of the album temporarily. Or the delays could be real and extend far beyond early 2014. The band members have promised a new album since almost immediately following the 2009 release of No Line On The Horizon.

Whatever the case, fans must still wait until an official source sheds more light on the matter.