Review Summary: Most definitely not How to Destroy Nine Inch Nails.
My first exposure to Nine Inch Nails was through the video for “March of the Pigs.” It was simple, brash, but effective. Trent Reznor and his 1994 incarnation of the band rocked out in an all-white rehearsal space, Trent went off the rails, trashing no less than 3 microphones, pushing his band mates around, and singing like a madman. The video brought to life the aggression of that particular song in a way that felt more honest than any traditional music video could. But, “The Downward Spiral” was released nearly 20 years ago, so what does it have to do with Hesitation Marks, Trent’s first Nine Inch Nails release in 5 years? For starters, it is a complete departure from the aggressive depression of Trent’s 90’s work. It also distances itself from the hard rock tinged electronica that made up the bands output in the 00’s. Hesitation Marks is both a culmination of previous work and a fresh start for a band whose sound was starting to stagnate. However, the new release keeps one thing that has become a stalwart part of NIN, honesty.
Reznor has been busy since NIN’s last release, 2008’s “The Slip.” He’s scored two David Fincher films (earning an Oscar for one of them.) He also started a new band with his wife and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross, How to Destroy Angels. These projects seem to have rubbed off onto the DNA of Hesitation Marks in surprising ways. For starters it seems much less “busy” than a typical Nine Inch Nails record. Compared to “Year Zero,” with its swirling electronic freakouts and paranoia-soaked lyrics, Hesitation Marks seems tame. Many of the compositions here take on a softer side; there is a clear lack of live drums which does wonders for the atmosphere here.
Things start off promisingly enough with opener Copy of A, the instrumentation is much sparser but lyrically it treads familiar territory for Reznor. Lead single Came Back Haunted is a bit of a disappointment with another simple beat and trademarked angsty Reznorian verse, complete with a “they put something inside of me.” All the usual NIN ticks are there, a shoutable chorus, check, a distorted guitar bridge, check, whispers, check. Yet something feels missing, it’s almost as if Trent seems uninterested here. “Everything” is a song that is so jarring in its departure from the rest of the record that it easily becomes an album highlight with its jangly pop sound. The song finds Trent out of his comfort zone and completely owning it, exploring the higher registers of his voice and utilizing vocal harmonies. “Satellite” is another high point, lyrically; it recalls the uncertainty of Year Zero while relying on a funky underlying drum beat to keep us away from what could have easily become the darkest song on the album.
Hesitation Marks uses juxtaposition well over the course of its fourteen tracks and it makes for what will probably be one of NIN’s most polarizing albums. Hesitation Marks album sleeve is a direct homage to “The Downward Spiral” but those hoping for a resurgence of the industrial metal found on that record are bound to be disappointed. In fact anyone coming into this record with expectations weighed against previous releases is going to struggle to like this. But Hesitation Marks is a grower; it begs to make its own case, to prove its relevancy in the Nine inch Nails catalogue. It seems the trick to reinvigorating NIN was to continue to do what Trent Reznor has always done: release honest, heartfelt music.