Review Summary: A welcome return for a visionary
Ever since his rehabilitation, Trent Reznor had been working like a madman. The results are something of a mixed bag. With Teeth was a decent and rather straightforward comeback. Its followup Year Zero was strange and different but interesting. Both Ghosts and Trent's movie soundtrack efforts were generally commendable, but they are quite a departure from old school NIN. The Slip to me was very disappointing, a formulaic NIN-lite album that felt lazy and uninspired. At this point, coupled with Trent's previous announcement that NIN would be shelved for while, I was about ready to give up on NIN.
And then comes Hesitation Marks. Immediately it became clear that this album came from a place of inspiration rather than for the sake of putting an album out there. It is also clear that NIN is trying to explore new grounds. From tracks such as "Find My Way" (Now my path has gone astray / I'm just trying to find my way) and "Disappointed" (What did you expect? / So disappointed with what you get) we know further Trent himself does not know what he expects to find, so how could we expect and demand something of him?
There are definitely new elements to Trent's work, making use of unusual and intriguing beats as the ones in "Disappointed" and "Running". Trent has also done away with the lengthy instrumental, atmospheric tracks that were present in his other works. It seems that after Ghosts and his soundtrack work Trent decides that we've had enough of these for a while. That's not to say that Hesitation Marks lack such moments entirely. The familiar, sweetly chromatic passage makes a return at the end of "All Time Low" and a jazzier take can be found in "While I'm Still Here" and "Black Noise".
And yet Hesitation Marks feels instantly and distinctively familiar. It sounds like and is immediately recognisable as NIN, and no track feels like it would be completely out of place had they been in one of NIN's old albums. Trent remarks on this directly in "Copy of A" (Everything I say has come before... Always trying to catch up with myself). In fact this seems to be the major theme of the album: NIN is exploring change but realises that in the end it's all the same. It is a self-conscious album, but it doesn't care: it will go where it pleases without regard to how the rest of us will feel about it.
After several listens I found that although the first half of the album was engaging, the second half was somewhat less so, with the exception of the unconventional "In Two". Two tracks remain the highlight of the album for me: the cheeky and catchy second single "Copy of A" and "All Time Low", a funky and intriguing track that is amongst the best NIN has ever released.
Hesitation Marks marks a major return for a rock music colossus. It feels as if Trent has gathered all his previous experiences and distilled it down to "essence of Nine Inch Nails", producing something that is at the same time familiar and experimental. The production quality is simply stellar, as can be expected from people of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's calibre. If it were not for the somewhat lackluster second half, Hesitation Marks could be regarded as one of NIN's best works. As it is, it remains an excellent addition to an impressive catalog from one of rock music's most distinctive acts.