Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 09.03.2013
Nine Inch Nails returns with their first major-label album in six years with Hesitation Marks! But does Trent Reznor still have the fire after six years without a master or does it fall flat? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "The Eater of Dreams" (0:52)
2. "Copy of A" (5:23)
3. "Came Back Haunted" (5:17)
4. "Find My Way" (5:16)
5. "All Time Low" (6:18)
6. "Disappointed" (5:44)
7. "Everything" (3:20)
8. "Satellite" (5:03)
9. "Various Methods of Escape" (5:01)
10. "Running" (4:08)
11. "I Would for You" (4:33)
12. "In Two" (5:32)
13. "While I'm Still Here" (4:03)
14. "Black Noise" (1:29)
When you talk about iconic groups of the 1990s that have continued to thrive and remain relevant throughout the years, few groups fit that bill better than Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor's group helped break the industrial rock sound into mainstream consciousness and became a critical and commercial juggernaut, laying out landmark albums of the late '80s through the mid '90s in Pretty Hate Machine, the Broken and Wish EPs and The Downward Spiral. Since then Reznor has forged his own path. Albums like The Fragile, With Teeth and Year Zero have seen a constant evolution of the Nine Inch Nails sound into an electronic era that, while turning off some fans of the group's more rock-oriented earlier era, have created a bold new direction that's shown Reznor to be an artist who is true to himself and doesn't feel the need to just replicate his earlier successes.
Since 2007 when Year Zero was released, Reznor has found himself branching further out and whether he's been toying with new release structures on Ghosts I - IV and The Slip or moving into film scoring with The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he's always stayed busy and kept himself on passion projects. He's even formed his own side project How to Destroy Angels. Now he's back with Hesitation Marks, his first major-label studio album in six years with which he hopes to continue his journey as a musical artist.
As Nine Inch Nails continues to evolve, the group has found its way from industrial to electronica rock and even dipped into a dark ambient sound with the Ghosts albums. On Hesitation Marks Reznor pulls from every element of his previous pieces of work and it both sounds like an evolution and a throwback for the band. A great example is the first full track, "Copy of A" which starts off with a synth line that could have easily come off Pretty Hate Machine; it's not unlike the opening to "Ringfinger" in some ways. But in short order it evolves into something more authentic to the ground's evolution, complemented by lyrics that lament being little more than a cog in the machine. Those lyrics could easily be interpreted as a shot at the very big-label music industry he's come back to, with lines like "Everything I say has come before" and "I'm just a finger on a trigger on a finger/Doing everything I'm told to do." But these are also not new themes for Reznor, who has been playing with relationships of oppression in his lyrics since he screamed "I'd rather die than give you control." The track proves that Reznor still has things to say on the topic and it puts the album on a very good start.
Fans of Reznor's older sensibilities will probably latch onto "Came Back Haunted" as the highlight of the album, and in a lot of ways it is. The track contains the kind of reverb-heavy electro-rock foundations that sounds like classic Reznor and the lyrics, spat out with an aggressive sort of disdain by Reznor, revolve around classic NIN themes but with a mood that feels appropriate for an older and wiser Reznor who has not lost his nihilistic outlook on the world but has paid the price for daring to look into the eye of the monster. But even as the song calls back to classic-sounding NIN, he throws in little touches that modernize it and keep things from being just a warmed-over rehash of something off Machine. Glitchy electronic tones worm their way into the edges of the song's subconscious to remind us that yes, in fact this is not 1989 but 2013. And that somehow, even in 2013, one of the pioneers of the mainstream industrial rock movement has found a way to stay relevant and musically resonant.
It must be noted that Hesitation Marks will not satisfy every Nine Inch Nails fan. For years there have been calls for him to return to the guitar-laden greatness of Downward Spiral or The Fragile, and this album is not that; it is Reznor's most openly electronic album yet. But is it really surprising? EDM owes a huge debt to Reznor, who has always had strong elements of it in his music and helped take it out of the clubs (along with many other acts, to be fair, but how many of those acts have done so with several multi-platinum albums?). There are elements of his past work, though not in the way some fans may hope. "Find My Way" sounds like a track that could have been on The Fragile and while it isn't exactly "Starfucker" or even "We're In This Together" it certainly sounds like a continuation of that double LP. "All-Time Low" recalls his past work but with the best electro-funk and beat combination he's delivered to date.
At this point the album levels off and Reznor smoothes out the ascent with "Disappointed." The track begins with EDM beats and staccato claps and snaps before moving into a low register-heavy vocal performance by Reznor. The song is by no means a bad one; it simply is more of a cog in the machine than a standout on its own. And that leads into the track that is sure to be the most divisive on the album in "Everything." With this New Order-inspired number Reznor is at his poppiest and most (dare I say it?) optimistic. Over the distinctly New Wave-y opening sounds, Reznor sings "I survived everything/I have tried everything." It's a strange way to think of the man who once sang in the persona of "Mr. Self-Destruct" and who almost lifelessly intoned "I just want something I can never have." But again, this just another part of Reznor's evolution as an artist and a person. This is no longer the man who sees nihilism as his guiding principle; we've heard him struggle with these themes for years and now he's come out on the other side, proclaiming "I am home/I am free." It may not be the kind of music that angry teenagers want to hear from him but it's the most lyrically authentic he's seemed in years.
This isn't just a content Reznor with nothing to say though. There's still a lot wrong with the world and while Reznor may not be struggling internally, he has an axe to grind with the problems of a greater community than just the one in his head. On "Satellite," another standout track, Reznor takes overt shots at government spy systems and suggests a dystopian future (perhaps the same one of Year Zero in which the final haven of free thought--the very mind itself--is subject to being listened in on. It's a quintessential piece of sci-fi rock and incredibly inspired thematically.
Sadly, not every song on the album is gold; the lone track that doesn't particularly hold up to the quality of the rest is "Various Methods of Escape." The moody electronic beats and production tones are certainly not bad, but it's one of the few times on the LP where the disparate elements both past and present get away from Reznor and he isn't able to forge it quite into what he wants it to be. It is also worth noting that there isn't the kind of centerpiece or iconic track that Reznor's past work has been known for. Pretty Hate Machine had "Head Like a Hole"; Downward Spiral had "Closer" and "Hurt." Even With Teeth, which is perhaps his most unloved (and underrated) work, has "The Hand that Feeds." On Hesitation Marks the songs are all great but no one song stands out definitively from the whole piece, with the exception of "Everything" which will certainly split opinions. This isn't a bad thing but people looking for the next "Wish" or "Survivalism" won't find it here.
The back stretch of the LP is perhaps the best example of that, as Reznor delivers songs that work much better as pieces of a whole than on their own. This is the case with the one-two punch of "Running" and "I Would For You," as well as the similarly glitchy-sounding closing tracks "While I'm Still Here" and "Black Noise." But in the middle of those two pairs, just to show he's not easing you gently into that dark night, he delivers a fiery punch to the gut with "In Two." This is perhaps the most classic Reznor-like track on the entire album and the one that old-school fans who bemoan the new will latch onto, as Reznor spits "Thrive, just become/Your disease" over an electro snarl that contains one of the few really genuine (and, it's worth noting, inspired) set of guitar riffs. It's a final kick in an album that shows Reznor as a man continuing to evolve as a musician and a person; at his core he's still same man who wrote himself into the role Mr. Self Destruct, but now finds a wider canvas upon which to paint than his tortured soul would allow.
Standout Tracks: "Copy of A," "Came Back Haunted," "Everything," "Satellite," "In Two"
Skippable: "Various Methods of Escape"
The 411: In many ways, Nine Inch Nails' Hesitation Marks feels and sounds like Trent Reznor taking his sound full circle while expanding his thematic consciousness. The LP is both forward thinking and reminiscent of the artist's past while keeping on the relevant edge of electronically-inspired rock. Fans wishing for a return to the days of Downward Spiral and The Fragile-era NIN will likely come away disappointed, but for those who have seen Reznor's music evolve and have liked the direction he's taken, it's another great step in his career.