A Calm in the Storm
Five years between albums is not unprecedented for Nine Inch Nails. It took five years for The Fragile, the follow-up to landmark The Downward Spiral, to arrive, and then another six years for With Teeth. Fans are accustomed to feast or famine as Trent Reznor– nucleus, polestar, sole actual member– balances his personal life and other artistic endeavors, including winning the Golden Globe and Academy Award with collaborator Atticus Ross for the score of The Social Network, and launching the new band How to Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig.
There wasn’t much ambiguity surrounding NIN’s 2009 tour, called “Wave Goodbye.” Reznor’s intentions were clear. Unsure of what else to do with Nine Inch Nails and anxious to pursue other projects, Reznor put the band on indefinite, and possibly permanent, hiatus.
Then, early this year, tour dates were announced: summer festival headlining spots, usually in conjunction with Angels. On May 28th, a simple post from Reznor to the band’s tumblr began, “I’ve been less than honest about what I’ve really been up to lately.” New album? Already finished. Touring band? Assembled, rehearsed, ready to go. The completely unexpected return of one of rock’s most exciting bands? Surprise! As Reznor’s post concluded, “Here we go!”
Hesitation Marks is not a narrative or concept album à la Spiral or 2007’s Year Zero. It is a collection threaded together by sound, rather than theme. It is more electronics– synths, drones, programmed beats– than power chords and pounding bass. Those who may be surprised (or disappointed?) are forgetting that the height of NIN’s guitar sound was twenty years ago. The imperfections of humanity have always been forced against the precision of programming, but since the mid-’90s, Reznor has steadily shifted the balance of power to the machine. With fewer guitar parts and nary a piano ballad, Hesitation Marks is NIN for a new era.
Relatively speaking, Hesitation Marks shares a more positive perspective, or at least the most mature. Though our problems may not disappear as we get older, we do find better ways to cope with them, and Reznor is no different.
The album is flush with warmth wrenched from the electronics, and ever-present in Reznor’s supple, only-getting-better voice. Dance beats dominate the first half even while the mood remains dark. Reznor laments a lack of originality in “Copy of A” and describes a harrowing experience he can’t shake in “Came Back Haunted,” while also tagging it with a piano melody from his 1994 hit, “Closer.” These little hints, like insider jokes, pop up on occasion.
His demons catch up with him on “All Time Low,” which pairs a glitchy bounce with a funk beat for Reznor’s vocals to transform over, from a measured, spiked aggression to a smooth falsetto in the chorus. One song later, “Everything”– the NIN equivalent of nyan cat that sticks out and sticks with you– declares his ultimate victory, but it’s the less-obvious succeeding tracks that convey a sense of calm amidst the still-raging storm.
On “Satellite,” Reznor finds he can outsmart his demons: “Satellite / I’m watching you / I’m one step ahead” and later, “Think I found / A way around.” But his grip is soon to slip. On “Various Methods of Escape,” Reznor’s verses are distant and muted over a plodding thud, defeated. The sludge overtakes on “I Would For You,” and the listener is easily distracted from here on out as it’s hard to see beyond the mire. Reznor’s last breath is put to the sparse near-ballad, “While I’m Still Here,” before the abyss swallows all on “Black Noise.”
Although things grow cloudy during the second half, lyrically and sonically, it is only a reminder of the continuing fight to get to “Everything” and its final coda: “I am home / I believe / I am home / I am free / I am home / I can see / Always here / Finally.”