Many people remember where they were, if they are of a certain age, when JFK was shot or, more recently, when the twin towers fell. I happen to remember where I was when I first heard albums and, in particular, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, released almost 20 years ago. I was driving in a small city with it playing in my cassette player, and it was an overcast and rainy evening.
“Mr. Self Destruct” came on, and, this being the first time I had heard the song, I had to pull over to the side of the road because I was convinced that the windshield wipers on my parents’ car were failing. Turns out that strange sound was just the opening beats of the song. And then, a few songs later, there’s a piano break in “March of the Pigs” that had both me and my passenger laughing because it felt so absurd, coming on the back of a relentless industrial passage. If I hadn’t then been driving in a mall’s parking lot, I probably would have driven right off the road.
So, in a nutshell, I remember distinctly where I was the first time I heard The Downward Spiral precisely because it was so new, fresh and, dare I say?, surprising.
Well, it’s been nearly two decades since that moment, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is still surprising me. The band’s latest, Hesitation Marks, so named after the initial unsure cuts a person will make on his or her arm with a blade or razor before a suicide attempt—such hesitation marks denote an uncertainty to go through with it—is in many ways a throwback to a more keyboard drenched sound. This makes the record oddly analogous to fellow industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy’s latest album, Weapon, in that the heavy metal guitars have been dialed back in favour of more synthesized sounds. In fact, I think my local used CD store will have to rethink its decision to file Nine Inch Nails in the metal section of its store after hearing this album.
What’s more, despite the usual doom and gloom, or un-surety, of Reznor’s lyrics, Hesitation Marks finds him sounding remotely ... happy. This is most evident on “Everything”, with its keyboard stutter and vaguely Auto-Tuned vocals. The angst is still there for sure (“I have tried everything,” Reznor muses on the song), and while the album’s maelstrom of sound often overtakes the vocals at points, the sound is one of a man who seems at least somewhat content with his position in life and is now just questioning his priorities.
This might not be surprising, considering that Reznor gladly picked up his Oscar for co-scoring The Social Network, whereas he has allegedly physically lost the Grammy Awards he won earlier in his career and had, at least at one point, no inclination to find them again. It really seems that Reznor, now clean and sober, has matured as he ages gracefully into his late 40s, and Hesitation Marks shows that he’s clearly a statesman of the industrial and electronic genres.
Yet for all of Reznor’s newfound confidence, he’s still finding himself and his overall direction, as evidenced on “Copy of A”, the album’s defacto first song. “I am just a copy / of a copy / of a copy,” he sings. “Everything I say has come before.” It’s striking that this is the very first words on the album, considering how forward-looking Hesitation Marks is. “Always trying to catch up with myself,” he later muses, and then proceeds to spend much of the record hour-ish runtime trying to prove that he isn’t. In fact, just from scanning the lyric sheet, you can see that he’s “just trying to find [his] way,” now that he’s embraced his place in the music business and has a major award that he’s proud of to his credit.
You could say that Hesitation Marks might as well have been called Without Teeth, and I wouldn’t be the first to note that this record lacks a certain caustic oomph. However, Reznor provides something that might be more engaging than that at this point in his career: the realization that he’s not getting any younger, and he might as well enjoy the spoils of success in the best possible manner. “I have been to everyplace / I have to been to everywhere.” And Hesitation Marks merely asks, what’s next? That Reznor sings “this is where the fun begins” at one point might be a start. “We’re never going to die,” as Reznor says on “All Time Low” might be another, at least in terms of being somewhat more upbeat than on past efforts.
While this album is, in some ways, a return to the signature sound pioneered on Pretty Hate Machine, some may draw the obvious parallels to The Downward Spiral due Adrian Belew’s presence on guitars, Alan Moulder behind the mixing desk once again, and the return of album cover artist Russell Mills. While Hesitation Marks is distinctly a different beast than The Downward Spiral, and maybe you could consider this record to be “The Upward Spirial” for its sense of musical optimism, there’s a moment on “Various Methods of Escape” that is classic Reznor – all of the sounds drop away, and there’s just the gurgle of a rhythm and Reznor’s whispered vocals – and may make shivers crawl down your back.
However, the overall effect of Hesitation Marks is one of newfound creativity: it’s an album that clearly doesn’t quite sound like the Nine Inch Nails that most people will be familiar with: harrowing, bleak and angry. Everything on Hesitation Marks simmers, and while it may take a few listens to really get a grip on this direction, it’s just as convincing emotionally as anything found on Reznor’s string of early ‘90s releases. “I Would for You”, in fact, has the same quiet-loud dynamics of a classic Pixies song, which is something textually different than what you might have been expecting.
“Find My Way” might strike one as being a bit bland on initial listen, but it creeps up on you eventually in unsettling ways. Overall, the album is effective as a mood piece: “I Would for You” dovetails nicely into “In Two” and, unless you were listening carefully or watching iTunes or the track counter on your CD player, wouldn’t know where “While I’m Still Here” ended and “Black Noise” began.
There’s a deluxe edition of the record which comes with three remixes, and I can say that this version of Hesitation Marks is merely superfluous. Reznor is such a master of a producer that having others reinterpret his work comes across as an exercise in futility; there’s nothing more or less that can be added or taken away from his songs, so Reznor’s remix albums come across as being remotely needless.
The headscratcher here is that Todd Rundgren, the ‘70s power pop progenitor (give Something/Anything? a listen if you haven’t already), contributes a remix, showing that he’s on the downward spiral lately in trying to convince people that, at age 65, he’s still relevant as a producer-cum-DJ. Alas, Rundgren’s take on “All Time Low” might be one of his more embarrassing missteps, as it takes something that could have been conceived on the dancefloor and tries to make it sound New Age-y. It doesn’t work.
The other two remixes – one by Oneohtrix Point Never; the other by Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV fame – are merely passable. Spend the coin on this version of the release only if you’re a Nine Inch Nails or Reznor completist and must have absolutely “Everything” (heh).
Overall, Hesitation Marks is a necessary addition to the Nine Inch Nails oeuvre, even though the initial reaction to it might be one of befuddlement or WTF?-ness. It’s obvious that Reznor is at an age where he cannot play the angry young man anymore, and the music of Hesitation Marks belies this fact: any more vitriol and he may have, indeed, self-destructed. So you really need to put your preconceived notions aside for this release.
If you do, you’ll experience a richly rewarding journey through a landscape painted by someone clearly creatively rejuvenated, even if that creator is unsure whether “giving up or going on / ... are both the same old song”, to crib from a Cure lyric. In many ways, Hesitation Marks might be the most commercially inviting album in Nine Inch Nail’s backcatalogue, and that may give some detractors pause. However, for Reznor to create the same kind of guitar thrashing black metal of the Broken EP would probably feel dishonest after that Oscar win. So while Reznor acknowledges that “I’m still here” at one point, he seems absolutely content to be alive – the use of saxophones on “While I’m Still Here” are proof of that.
As a whole, Hesitation Marks is an engaging and embracing listen, and it can certainly be said that, almost 25 years into a recording career, Reznor is still surprising listeners. Even if that biggest surprise is that he’s finally embracing what everyone knew all along: he’s always interesting and has something of value to say in this confusing and often painful world.
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