Trent Reznor’s main vehicle and contribution to the music world, Nine Inch Nails, is back, but not in the form some would expect. The trouble with long-standing acts is often the various groups of fans they attract. To some, only a recreation of the original “Pretty Hate Machine” sound would be acceptable. To others, the progressive reaches of “The Fragile” show Reznor at his most ambitious. And of course, “The Downward Spiral” is undeniably an album that has left a strong imprint on the subconscious of many. But you always have to appreciate an artist who resists repeating their work, and instead chooses to speak their own truth, for good or ill. Tom Waits does this. Radiohead does this. The reason it can be hard for some to accept a new direction with Nine Inch Nails is simple; NIN’s early work showcased a depression blueprint. Depression is a very serious disease (look it up if you think it’s any less than that), and many of Trent’s fans from the early-mid 90’s have not overcome it yet…nothing to be scoffed at. Hence, they may not relate to some of the more neutral, and even positive emotions expressed on the brand new full-length offering “Hesitation Marks”.
“Hesitation Marks” is, for all intents and purposes, an electronic pop album. Even the songs that play with rock elements don’t really rock hard by any means. The album seems inspired by both Massive Attack/classic trip hop, Kraftwerk, Radiohead and house/dance music. “Copy of A” is one of the most notable tracks and dynamic shifts, and I believe it stands alongside many of Trent’s better works. The lyrics are an honest assessment of where he feels he’s at, and the beautiful, sweeping poly rhythmic arrangements would certainly provide a good template for whirling dervishes to practice to. While “Came Back Haunted” was a bit disappointing as a lead single, it fits in nicely with the album and a semi-energetic tempo change.
“Find My Way” is a track coming straight from the Massive Attack bible, nabbing some of the arrangements from Mezzanine’s brilliant “Angel”….but that’s ok. Trent creates something new with it and succeeds with a vulnerable, subtle offering. It isn’t until “All Time Low” starts playing that you realize this is large a pop album…and there’s something refreshing about that. The chorus is memorable and the verse is undeniably funky. The outro would make Moby jealous, with it’s ambient staircase leading the way outside the self.
“Disappointed” gives a nod to George Harrison and The Beatles’ famous “Within You Without You” with it’s lush string arrangements. Vocally and musically, Trent tries a Radiohead approach for the rest of the song and succeeds, with another interesting, innovative piece. Without a doubt, one of the standout tracks.
“Everything” delves into full-on pop rock territory, and a previously unseen positive energy radiating from Trent in the lyrics “I am home. I am free” etc. While this track may divide people, it’s as lush as the rest of the release and really fits with the overarching themes. “Satellite” is another album standout, and it’s pure club pop. That shouldn’t surprise at this point. There are traces of Nine Inch Nails, for sure, but they weave themselves into the background.
“Various Methods of Escape” is where the album seems to lose a bit of momentum. Think “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” and you’ll get the idea of the direction. It’s enjoyable and not a bad track, just not overly potent, and sounds like a good b-side. “Running” finds Trent pulling another Radiohead, with some success once again. He whispers “I’m running. I’m running out.” growing more out of breath with each utterance.
“I Would For You” is a love song, another pleasant, catchy track that fits with the album. Probably not a highlight for most though. “In Two” is a theatrical nod to NIN’s industrial past, and it’s edgy parts almost sound out of place on this otherwise soft album. With it’s dynamic shifts and heavy rhythms, it does make you wonder what a noisier album from Trent would sound like at this point. “While I’m Still Here” is passable, though it unfortunately borrows the same vocal line as “Find My Way”, and not in a positive sense. The album fades out, perhaps appropriately.
While “Hesitation Marks” is a mixed effort, it’s a very good album overall. Not great, but very good. It could well be Nine Inch Nails’ best work since “The Fragile”. Note: I’m not comparing it to “The Fragile” by any means. That album is a masterpiece! “Hesitation Marks” flows well from front to back, and it’s flaws are overcome by the restless imagination at play. For those hoping that Trent had gotten over his “I. Me. Mine” lyrical complex and moved on to more universal themes, that’s not the case. Every lyric begins with “I”, but that is simply his artistic style. I’d love to see more range/depth too, but if you listen, the depth is in the music, not the words.