“Wave, wave goodbye,” Trent Reznor told fans back in 2009, signalling an end (at minimum) to the touring era of Nine Inch Nails. The frontman and creative force behind the act since it broke onto the scene with 1989 release Pretty Hate Machine, it seemed that given the love in his life, new projects on tap and a general sense of being fed up with road life, he was done with the moniker. The influence of Nine Inch Nails upon the music industry and its continued exploration of industrial elements and, more prominently, the digital tools on the music frontier would remain as a testament to his work, but NIN itself? No more.
So what does a gifted musician do with himself after calling it quits? He scores an Academy Award-winning film, even grabbing a statuette of his own for his contributions with Atticus Ross. For me, it was the recognition of the emotional depth Reznor has consistently brought to the table for decades that the Grammys are too busy wanking over the pop music scene to acknowledge; for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, it was a grand flip of the bird to those who suck at mainstream media’s teat.
He also becomes a father twice over with new wife and How To Destroy Angels bandmate Mariqueen Maandig. He releases an EP and album with How To Destroy Angels, never one to remain silent. Filled with the alternately foreboding and hushed electronicscape fans became enchanted with on The Social Network, HDTA marked a clear divide between the aggressive sounds of NIN and the mature and contemplative Reznor of the 2000s. One might muse that previous NIN release Ghosts I-IV was a precursor to HDTA.
All fantastic and seemingly fulfilling. So how am I now holding a new album and tickets to a forthcoming tour date?
In a recent interview with SPIN, Reznor explains the return of NIN as initially very much a business obligation. Owing a few tracks to Interscope for a forthcoming greatest hits compilation, he returned to the studio with an eye on experimentation; out of these sessions came “Everything” and “Satellite” . With them came a sense of introspection, particularly with respect to Reznor’s troubled 90s and the mega-successful concept album, The Downward Spiral — arguably a modern take on the themes explored by Roger Waters on The Wall. A door had been opened.
On Hesitation Marks, the echoes of that 1994 hit album are most prominent in lead single “Came Back Haunted”, a pulsing, predatory composition with undercurrents of PTSD and a battle not yet over. “They tried to tell me but I/I couldn’t stop myself and I came back/I came back haunted,” Reznor belts (an intentional rarity on the album, surprisingly). For the listener, it epitomizes the thematic elements on this journey: depression; isolation; the cyclical nature of one’s emotional well-being; but also, the compulsive need to reflect, to delineate our history to better appreciate and ultimately survive and thrive in the present. One also finds sonic throwbacks and variations on the core elements of The Downward Spiral: the swelling, electronic noise evokes hit track “Closer” in an almost negative image.
Digging deeper into the album, it begins to feel like a nod to the phases of NIN’s evolution. “Satellite” seems a lost track from Year Zero with its raspy, hushed dialogue with a watching God — define as Big Brother, depression or a greater force at will. “Everything”, on the other hand, pulls from the 80s sounds that fed into Pretty Hate Machine and, to a degree, 2008’s The Slip with a strange punk throwback vibe that I’ve been describing as the rowdy bastard child of Joan Jett and The Ramones. “In Two” falls neatly between, evoking the explode/fade of the best of The Fragile. Consequently I, too, felt myself reflecting not only upon Reznor’s work, but the trajectory of my life as it happened. And yet, nothing is derivative; each track is fresh and almost playful despite the darker themes.
Hesitation Marks is a canvas of experiments and “What if I…?” and on the vast majority of tracks, it pays off. Where it fails are the more indulgent moments of drag that feel like a remix more so than an album track proper. “Disappointed” is a tedious lowlight, victim to this in spades. In contrast, “Copy Of A” is a standout track on the album, perhaps my favourite. Sonically evocative of “Heresy” yet lyrically nestled within the anti-establishment bosom of Year Zero, the track is almost sparse for a NIN tune, mainly with respect to the heavy guitars older fans will likely expect. The decision to explore the notion of restraint and a breakaway from the traditional explosive choruses of NIN pays off on this sinister refusal to conform. Reznor’s willingness to relinquish control over each element also reaps tremendous rewards, with Lindsey Buckingham’s contributions to closer “While I’m Still Here” factoring heavily in one of the most astonishing NIN tracks ever written.
Restraint truly is the watchword for the project. Frequently, I find myself expecting Reznor to unleash his pipes, only for him to dwell in the lower registers, perhaps layered upon with his trademark tiered vocals. “Running” builds sonically to grand heights and yet, the vocals approach the precipice, only to retreat. It’s a challenging listen, and I mean this favourably, although I wouldn’t want another NIN album to follow upon this one that refuses to explode. The mellower nature of the album may turn off fans who prefer the more rage-infused NIN sound and while some of the softest tracks drag on unnecessarily long (“Find My Way” is tragically a classic example), the more atmospheric feel of the songs plays into the concept of a reflective state — a hesitation before one’s end.
Consider this album the second journey down the spiral, where the exasperated anger of “Fucking hell, not again!” meets the wiser soul who clearly knows why he should live and yet, here is a blade and here is a decision to be made. It is a love letter of sorts to the troubled youth who bear the scars of that time, who have emerged from the darkness but still shadowbox their demons. It says, “It’s okay to remember, to still feel this way at times.” It honours the wounds of personal wars without trivializing or glamourizing the fight.
Reznor may not ever spew the sunshine and kittens that critics seem to believe he ought to at his age, and perhaps we should embrace him for that honesty. For some of us, the spiral is never far from hand. Give me the honesty of that truth and the reminder of having lived through it over artificial light. That is the beauty of art.
“A line of lyric looping in my head/The body listening.”
Highlights: “Copy Of A”; “Came Back Haunted”; “Satellite”; “While I’m Still Here”
Final Grade: A