Review Summary: Stylish and diverse; a worthy comeback.
My, hasn't Trent Reznor been busy?
Between side projects, scoring films, raising sons and insulting fans over Twitter, the 48-year-old prince of industrial has somehow found the time to make another Nine Inch Nails album. I'll admit to feeling ambivalent when Hesitation Marks was announced. After the heights of his first three albums, I feel Trent really stumbled on 2005's With Teeth and 2007's Year Zero. Aside from a few tracks, these attempts to recast Nine Inch Nails as radio-friendly electronic rock were blunders. He regained his footing however with Ghosts I-IV, a double album of ambient instrumentals, and its swift follow-up The Slip, which was essentially With Teeth and Year Zero done right.
It was after this return to form that Trent put Nine Inch Nails on 'indefinite hiatus'. It seemed he would rather go out on a high note than risk trailing off into mediocrity. A good place to call it a day, I thought. But now, that satisfactory full stop has been turned into a question mark; Nine Inch Nails is back with a new album. Is eighth LP Hesitation Marks a glorious rebirth, a passable victory lap, or an unnecessary disappointment?
Reznor certainly wants Hesitation Marks to *feel* like his best album ever: extravagant tour plans, multiple masters, a series of artwork by Russell Mills (who designed the iconic cover of The Downward Spiral nineteen years ago). And while I'd hesitate to call it the greatest album in the Nine Inch Nails discography, it is certainly a worthy addition. Instead of rushing into its conception, Trent clearly spent some time plotting what he wanted Hesitation Marks to sound like. In the end, he went for an equal mix of old and new; namely, the brooding electronica of his recent works woven around muscular hooks and choruses that wouldn't sound out of place on Pretty Hate Machine. It is a winning formula, both harkening back to Trent's glory days and sounding very much like a fresh, modern album.
As can be expected, Hesitation Marks delivers several heavy, assaultive tracks such as “Came Back Haunted”, a ghostly cousin of vintage Nine Inch Nails track “Into the Void.” Also included are a number of more brooding and meditative songs, such as the ethereal “Find My Way” and “While I'm Still Here.” Its frequent shifts in tempo and volume give Hesitation Marks a dynamic, diverse feel. This diversity also extends to the album's emotions; while far from a happy record, with a title that references suicide, it includes more major keys and uplifting lyrics than any prior Nine Inch Nails album. Though at times, such as on the post-punky “Everything”, these rays of light land awkwardly upon the scorched earth of Reznor's universe, they are on the whole a welcome contrast to the venom and angst normally found there. Trent is clearly a happier person than he used to be, no doubt getting off on being a husband and a father; I cannot see the positivity that has bled into his music as a bad thing.
In addition to its wide scope of sounds and emotion, the songs themselves on Hesitation Marks are fantastic. His songwriting seems to have matured since we last heard him on The Slip, each track here shimmering with detail and intent. Two in particular rank among Reznor's best: the Downward Spiral-worthy “All Time Low”, a hellish funk track made of scabs and barbed wire, and the downright sexy post-industrial cut “Various Methods of Escape”, with its snaking verses and addictive chorus. It is on these songs where Reznor sounds truly on top of his game, as creative and as charismatic as he's ever been. If Hesitation Marks is more than just a fluke, and Reznor is able to repeat its charms, I'm all for album number nine.