Trent Reznor, the man almost entirely behind the music of Nine Inch Nails, has shown himself to be someone who sings only with pure, raw emotion throughout his career. Lyrics like “I hurt myself today/to see if I feel” from the 1994 song “Hurt” immediately set Reznor apart from his fellow ‘90s alternative rock pioneers.
At first listen, the early music of Nine Inch Nails is startling, but Reznor has grown up quite a bit since those days. In the last five years, he’s written two award-winning, mostly instrumental film scores, formed another band and became both a husband and a father. Don’t forget that he broke up Nine Inch Nails and made a big deal out of it, too. But Reznor has indeed pulled a Brett Favre and returned to his most famous musical vehicle. “Hesitation Marks,” the first NIN album in five years, displays a newfound maturity in Reznor’s work, while losing only a little of its typical raw intensity.
The album’s opening four tracks are its backbone. “The Eater of Dreams,” which lasts only 50 seconds, sounds like a futuristic industrial nightmare that only Reznor could make. “Copy of A” partly shares its opening line with a famous quote from David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” In the film, Edward Norton gazes at a copy machine wearily and says “everything is a copy of a copy.” The opening line of the track has Reznor echoing a similar sentiment; “I’m just a copy of a copy.” The fact that Fincher’s work is now showing up in Reznor’s (both of Reznor’s award-winning film scores have been for Fincher films) may not be a coincidence. Regardless, the track is, just like “Fight Club”: fierce, restless, challenging and breathtaking.
“Came Back Haunted,” the album’s lead single, is also stunning. The verse creeps along before the chorus explodes with a wall of guitar and Reznor’s anguished cries. “Find My Way,” though, may be the album’s finest moment. A stunning ballad, the track rolls slowly with beats that seem hesitant to show themselves. Instead of exploding in the chorus, like most NIN tracks, the song continues at its previous pace while simply adding some beautiful, delicate piano. This seems to be Reznor’s way of showing that he can still be disarmingly direct.
The track “All Time Low” has a great synth-driven outro, and “Disappointed” has a similarly tight intro, but both end up feeling a bit long and cumbersome. “All Time Low” runs for six minutes, and “Disappointed” runs just shy of the six-minute mark, taking away a lot of the momentum built by the first four tracks. The song “Everything,” reminiscent of fellow ‘90s ensemble Green Day, just sounds completely out of place in the context of NIN’s repertoire. In the chorus, which takes the term “loudness wars” to another level, there appears to be at least a dozen guitar tracks that do nothing but deafen the listener, and not in a good way.
“Satellite” and “Running” both come across as unremarkable songs. The unpredictable changes of tempo and volume in “Various Methods of Escape” mark it as one of the more interesting tracks on the album.
The last third of the album starts with “I Would For You,” a song with a beastly low end that anchors the verse. But then the chorus comes, the bass goes away and suddenly Nine Inch Nails sound like U2. The sensation is entirely strange – it sounds like two completely different songs are doing battle with each other. The last three songs “In Two,” “While I’m Still Here” and “Black Noise” are all connected without gaps in between. They provide a satisfyingly dark and unsettling end to an album that is consistently loose with its emotions and feelings.
“Hesitation Marks” at its finest is actually quite revelatory, and on the surface sounds like rock at its absolute cutting edge. Its fusion of a legion of genres often works beautifully, but like much of the band’s previous work, it does have a tendency to stretch out considerably, sometimes to a fault.
But for what could be considered a reunion album, “Hesitation Marks” is quite impressive. It’s a forceful, strong-willed record that can certainly be supported by the immense tour that Reznor has scheduled for the album. Nine Inch Nails is back, and this new album gives the impression that they never really left.
Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]