Review Summary: Hesitation Marks is an admirable effort, but not the home run many of us hoped it would be.
It's been four years since Nine Inch Nails vanished from the limelight, and the band that returns bears considerable differences to the one we saw before. Frontman Trent Reznor has gone through an undeniable maturation process since the initial disbanding of the band, which includes the birth of two sons. Has becoming a family man mellowed out the former rage filled industrial/goth rocker" Hard to say, but one thing's clear: Hesitation Mark, is a significant departure from the band's previous offerings.
Whereas 2005's With Teeth, and 2007's Year Zero, in particular, leaned heavily on familiar formula of contrasting downbeat verses with powerhouse choruses, Hesitation Marks is a much more all-around subdued affair, working its magic in much quieter and subtle ways. There are nods to the band's industrial influences here and there, and even some experimental tracks introducing elements never before heard in Nine Inch Nails's music. And of course, Trent still finds time for his trademark sense of angst and pessimism. He's just found new, more grown up ways to do it now.
"Disappointed" is the keynote example of this. Whereas in his youth Trent might have opened up with a volley of screaming guitars and a torrent of anguish, here the damage is done by fuzz covered vocals, coupled with an anxious tremolo riff to create a suffocating sense of despair. Nor does he offer any sliver lining from the lyrics, as Trent spells out how nothing ever seems to go right: "Do you ever want to just get outta here/ So disappointed; just disappear."
The two advance singles win the award for best in show. "Came Back Haunted" is the most obvious homage to The Downward Spiral glory days, complete with a lurching mechanical keyboard riff that sounds as threatening as it does infectious. "Copy of A," meanwhile, is a case study in how to slowly build over the course of a song, letting all the effects simmer in the background until reaching a big finish complete with overlapping vocals and plenty of buzzyworthy keyboard effects.
Also of note are a couple of experimentations Reznor has whipped up. Those weary of the dreary old Nine Inch Nails should be most interested to hear "Everything," a new wave tinged piece drawing inspiration from The Cure, with 80s-esque backing vocals and Adrian Belew's chugging guitar. This song is the biggest departure in the band's career, and easily one of the most upbeat songs in their catalog.
"All Time Low," on the other hand, takes its cues from Trent's buddy Josh Homme. Reznor made a guest appearance on Queens of the Stone Age's newest album ...Like Clockwork, in June. Perhaps not coincidentally, that album bore a song called "Smooth Sailing," a significant departure for that band which sounded much more like a Nine Inch Nails song than the sludge rock they had been known for. Perhaps also not coincidentally, "All Time Low" is the closest that any Nine Inch Nails tune has come to sounding like a Queens of the Stone Age song. The funky guitar licks that back the verses and chorus sound like it could have fit in seamlessly on ...Like Clockwork. However, it does morph into its own piece as it advances, finishing with a spaced out, starry eyed twinkling coda.
There's no question that Reznor deserves credit for changing up a formula that had been Nine Inch Nails's go to game plan throughout the 2000s. Yet in spite of all that, Hesitation Marks is an album that sorely misses that big punch and can't seem to recover from it. Everything is so restrained, mellow, and withdrawn that it all becomes monotonous well before the end of the album's one hour run time. There's a few songs here and there with somewhat big, punchy choruses (Various Methods of Escape, I Would For You) that also benefit from sleek, high tech production, but it still can't seem to shake the fact that Trent feels too afraid to let his hair down. It's reminiscent of what Bjork did with Vespertine -- releasing a downtempo, after hours record as a followup to a pair of albums on which kicking her heels up was never an issue.
Average pop rocker "Satellite" and wandering, dreary mope fest "Find My Way" presses that point and lets the album down as well as any song here. There is some variety to be found, and some musical ideas worth exploring, but Hesitation Marks can't seem to break past an inherent sense of self restraint that keeps these songs from developing into than they ultimately became. The return of Nine Inch Nails in any capacity is always a welcome development, but Hesitation Marks is merely an admirable effort rather than the home run many of us were hoping for.