Review Summary: Satellite, I know you're up there somewhere.
The last time we heard from NIN, Trent had put out a free-to-download album on the internet that had almost ironically been titled The Slip. The general consensus seemed to be that this album had been underwhelming and rather uninspired. After taking some time off to do some very solid movie soundtrack work, he has returned to NIN with Hesitation Marks. This is undoubtedly one of the stranger and more unique musical projects to come from the NIN discography (and I am not forgetting about Ghosts when I make that statement).
On this album, Trent has shed much of the angst-ridden, edgy, angry, alt rock aspects of his particular breed of industrial that dominated albums such as The Downward Spiral and With Teeth. This should not come as a total surprise, given the direction he has been travelling since Year Zero, with NIN's music becoming increasingly more electronic and decreasingly centered around hard rock. What might come as a surprise to listeners is just how prevalent a role the 80's & 90's inspired electro-pop. catchy sing-song style songs on this album play. The sounds are in many ways a throw-back to earlier NIN, with dance-able, beat-driven musical composition. Trent has always had a soft spot for poppy 80's-synth style production in his music.. ever since the 80's if we are going to be entirely honest with ourselves – however, Reznor has made this the showcase and forefront of his album this time around. I think it's pretty clear that Trent wants to be perceived by his listeners in a different manner. He no longer wishes to be identified as the angsty, long haired, drug and sex addict, emo, industrial overlord of the 90s and early 00's that gave us albums wrought with teenage angst, emotional lyrics, and angry noisy aggressive synth – such as The Downward Spiral, The Fragile, and With Teeth. He even went so far as to put out a 3 hour long ambient album that he called Ghosts. Was this an effort to break into the Post Rock and IDM scene alongside of artists such as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and GSYBE? Despite its pretentiousness, it had a few brightly shining gems hidden within in the form of minimalist piano sparsed over tonal drones (was anyone else desperately hoping for Trent to make a drone album by now or am I alone in that regard?).
Staying focused on Hesitation Marks, this is possibly the most electronic centric production we have heard yet from NIN. The songs are for the most part catchy, surprisingly upbeat, chorus driven, and easily digestible. “Came Back Haunted” is immensely poppy and enjoyable to listen to, invoking a certain euphoria in the listener that they might experience listening to one of their old favorite pop songs from the 80's or 90's.. Had I mentioned the funkiness yet!? “All Time Low” is nothing short of a miniature funk masterpiece hidden within the first 15 minutes of this album – and call me crazy, but am I hearing Trent Reznor channel vocal styles similar to that of the Damon Albarn's vocals from the Gorillaz? When we aren't bobbing our heads and tapping our feat to the funky, poppy bleeps and bloops all over Hesitation Marks, we are lulled away into the more relaxing, slow, atmospheric ambient listening experiences on tracks such as “Find My Way”, "Various Methods of Escape" and the very organic & almost tribal sounding "While I'm Still Here / Black Noise". 'Disappointed' is a track that may seem to struggle at first with the muffled vocal effect, but comes into its own element as it progresses, the chorus pulling us out of boredom and into interest without a moments notice. What are two words I keep continually using in this review? Poppy and funky! Satellite embodies that pop and funk feel while still keeping it very NIN with loud distorted electronic effects that keep it from being too user friendly - we wouldn't want to accidentally make a Postal Service album, no, we want a NIN album. It is nearly impossible sit still while listening to Satellite, as a beat reminiscent of Echoplex is accompanied by Trent vocalizing, “Satellite, I'm watching you, I know you're up there somewhere” Also worth mentioning is the track, “In Two”, which masterfully combines trippy, glitchy beats with some production effects characteristic of harder industrial, reminiscent of early NIN or KMFDM.
I have far more than a generally positive feeling towards this album, but I want to go ahead and identify some of the pitfalls as they became apparent to me. Lyrically speaking, Reznor has not seemed to have matured tremendously, with lyrics that sound awfully similar to everything he has ever written before. A prime example on 'Came Back Haunted': “I've got something you've got to see... They put something inside of me.” Another case in point example, on the track 'Find My Way', Trent sings, “We're never gonna die. How did we get so high?” While these are terribly uninspired lyrics, it must be asked, has NIN ever really been about innovative, though provoking lyrics..? No, NIN has always been about raw, angsty emotions translated through the medium of electronic production and unique instrumentation effects coupled with Reznor's ability to conquer a variety of vocal ranges and styles with notable talent. Even while Reznor sings some of these uninspired lyrics, they are hardly the centerpiece of the music we are listening to. I for one, am too busy being lulled into a trance by the unique production on this album to even care what sort of silly lyrics he is spouting off. He has always had an enjoyable and charismatic voice to listen to. I can hardly care if the lyrics are less than impressive. 'Everything' may have been the only track I did not care for on this album. I believe I understand what he was attempting to accomplish with this track, perhaps a little tribute to electonically inspired pop/punk rock, but the track simply came across as noisy and disjointed compared to the rest of this album.
My concluding thoughts: Trent visualizes and conquers with Hesitation Marks, by giving us something new and refreshing in the form of a throw-back to his earlier days. I recommend 'Came Back Haunted', 'Find My Way', 'All Time Low', 'Disappointed', 'Satellite', 'I Would For You', and 'While I'm Still Here'. Good work Trent! Should you manage to get your hands on the Deluxe Edition, the Oneohtrix Point Never remix of 'Find My Way', the Todd Rundgren Remix of 'All Time Low', and the 'While I'm Still Here' remixes are all fantastic listens as well.