Nine Inch Nails Hesitation Marks

The Way Out Is Through: Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hesitation Marks’ at 10

Nine Inch Nails’ Hesitation Marks creates an objective point for looking back with wiser eyes, showing that the way to a better life is to push through the past.

Hesitation Marks
Nine Inch Nails
30 August 2013

After years of deepening addiction and struggles with mental health, Hesitation Marks would see Trent Reznor push back against the straight rock-star narrative of success, addiction, and the inevitable ‘comeback’. A record of ruthless self-examination, Hesitation Marks redefines the ideal of recovery as a final goal of enlightenment, realizing it more as a fraught and fractured ongoing, never final process. Released in 2013, it would be the first new Nine Inch Nails album in five years since 2008’s The Slip, a ‘road’ record that sought to capture the immediacy of live first-time takes in place of agonized repetition and layered overdubs. 

Hesitation Marks is a poised and nuanced record, standing out among Reznor’s late-career peers from ’90s alternative rock, who would more commonly make desperate grabs for past glories rather than try to experiment or reinvent their sound. It was here Reznor would expose himself under brutal self-scrutiny, trying to rid himself of the pain of being an artist in a mainstream-dominated music industry that increasingly prioritized professionalism over risk-taking. Moving beyond the emotional extremes and intense drive for creative authenticity that came to signify the aesthetic of a definitive Nine Inch Nails sound, Reznor left behind the previously teenage affectations of his earlier songs and arrived at a more renewed lyrical sincerity, purposefully working through his most difficult growing pains and pointed mistakes of young adulthood, haunted by painful remembrance.

 By 2013, Reznor was happy to shed much of the rock star persona and the alienated aesthetic that threatened to consume his real self and trap him behind a determined, marble-like pose of unchanging, youthful nihilism, a shadow figure who lacked enough experience to understand what a mature adult life could be. A determined confidence, albeit with brittle armor, brought Reznor to the fore of public consciousness as an archetype and surrendered to a monotone form of expression. Hesitation Marks affirms a conscious and open acknowledgment of regret rather than seeking to suppress or erase the difficulty of its expanded confession. Instead of inviting forgetting and erasure, Reznor’s creative recovery became an act of accommodating the past into his present self; Hesitation Marks expresses this confrontation with addiction and life post-addiction. 

Reznor presents Nine Inch Nails albums as ongoing projects of experimentation, phasing in and out of metal, synthpop, and electronic influences while trying to maintain a singular musical identity. Hesitation Marks finds Reznor revisiting the mindscape of his 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, which still stands as Nine Inch Nails’ most extreme artistic statement while overlapping with mainstream levels of sales and media exposure. Hesitation Marks would absorb The Downward Spiral‘s musical and lyrical DNA, deconstructing its musical world as raw source material in Reznor’s creative narrative as he wrestles with intimate confessional and forceful distancing as a form of self-preservation.

Announcing Hesitation Marks in May 2013, a few months before its August release, Reznor had nothing to prove to himself or his fanbase, but he did admit to a hard-fought and determined recording process: “For the last year, I’ve been secretly working non-stop with Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder […] I am happy to say [it] is finished and frankly fucking great.” Sinking back into the five-year cycle of incubation and production that realized The Fragile (1999) and With Teeth (2005), speaking from a mature position to examine the personal struggles that underscored the previous 20 years. 

From the start of his career, Reznor found that he was increasingly crippled by his own perfectionism, later describing his earlier work ethic as being “at war with myself”. Captive to the dizzying void of the blank page, acting in sheer desperation to perfectly realize the imperfect idea, he would try to make every song the best thing he did, always better than the last. His trademark behavior was to try too hard, pushing himself beyond instinct towards narrowing creative exhaustion, where eventually fierce exactitude sunk into procrastination as he struggled to finish a complete song, never allowing himself the satisfaction of knowing when a track was finished. 

By 2013, Reznor rejected the idea that worthwhile creative endeavors can only be achieved by significant personal risk; the psychological pain and physical abuse brought about as endurance of growing mental strain. Following a continued descent into drug and alcohol abuse that started around 1993, addictive self-medicating behaviors dominated Reznor’s young life. Suppressing anxiety and numbing his internal sense of pressure, his addictions culminated in an overdose while on tour in 2000, where Reznor snorted heroin, mistaking it for cocaine, narrowly avoiding death.

He arrived at the nadir of his drug abuse, sometimes referred to in addiction recovery as bottoming out; it forced Reznor to acknowledge that he had a problem. It also made him understand that addiction was neither the entire cause nor the cure of making music but a symptom of deeper issues, chiefly the real feelings of depression and self-loathing that fuelled The Downward Spiral and the continued unsettled angst that dominated its equally tortured follow-up album, The Fragile, both records that, for all of their cathartic power, indulged negative feelings they were meant to exorcize. 

Drowning out painful emotions in volume and aggression was only ever a short-term fix— a criticism that could be leveled at the Fragile— a double album that veered between monolithic layers of distorted, alt-rock guitars and deeply introspective laments verging on self-pity and an emotional nostalgia, typical of heavier guitar music towards the late 1990s. At times, the record becomes claustrophobically parasitic, mirroring the struggles of emotionally vulnerable listeners, from teenagers to adults. It feeds upon and reinforces the sentiments of people emotionally dissociated from mainstream culture, providing them with both cathartic release and emotional centering that allows for psychological struggle while occasionally confirming these extreme states as the natural and unassailable order of life.

Reznor, then 34, seemed to indulge extended adolescence in his lyric writing. He consolidated his life into measures of ‘pain’ without further articulating why such feelings might dominate his emotional landscape. In the five years of working on and off in the studio, he struggled equally with the death of his grandmother and persistent writer’s block, particularly in a period of forced isolation in the California coastline of Big Sur, an abortive songwriting expedition that would inspire the writing of “La Mer” (The Fragile).

Living through the conjoined fallout of those seminal Nine Inch Nails albums, Reznor was emotionally hung up on the past, keeping one eye looking backward while seeing the future recede before him. His forced period of recovery brought him to the surrogate addiction of becoming a fervent gym-bro, a long process that resulted in the 2005 ‘comeback’ album With Teeth. The record’s guitar-driven style is almost derivative of the alternative band sound Reznor was seeking to reassert his position in the world of alternative rock that, in many respects, had already moved on past nu-metal towards the more expansive world of emo.

With Teeth nonetheless resurrected his confidence in making music and helped him to rediscover with an audience who still wanted to hear a new Nine Inch Nails album. Several albums, tours, and an original soundtrack Oscar later, by the time of Hesitation Marks‘ release, there was nothing left for Reznor to prove. He chose to go deeper into himself without getting stuck in narrow introspection. Hesitation Marks affirms itself as musically broad and adventurous while isolating Reznor’s core situation of trying to realize a new future and stay the course amid the wreckage of a troubled and difficult past life. 

A more mature and thoughtful Trent Reznor allowed his creative work to be equally playful and serious, acknowledging that the recording process demanded mistakes and happy accidents to discover and realize new sounds. He was now more open to a freer way of making music, content to throw away tracks that weren’t working rather than forcing a song through to completion and beating himself up in the process. Reznor found himself to be a more confident and experienced self-editor, able to side-step the judgemental and punishing wrath of his internal critic to craft a more dynamic range of music that didn’t have to be heavy for its own sake or seek to please the needs of the imagined listener.

Where earlier Nine Inch Nails albums became absorbed into Dante-like visitations to an inferno of fraught emotions, writhing and vibing in the abyss, Hesitation Marks becomes an objective point of looking back with wiser eyes, expressing that the way to a better life in the present is to push through the past. In doing so, Reznor rejected the notion that past traumas can somehow be overcome, or even neutralized, through creative catharsis. Real trauma lies hidden far beneath the surface and never really goes away. Reznor revisited his struggles and interrogated them head-on, with a constant awareness of the past. To move forward, it must be accommodated into his present, emergent self, never entirely settled, never cured, but always working toward a new becoming. 

Hesitation Marks began life as recording sessions for bonus tracks to be tacked on to a forthcoming Nine Inch Nails ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation, work that would later appear as the songs “Everything” and “Satellite”. With the ‘best-of’ situation edging a little too close to Throbbing Gristle’s parodically-titled 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the mooted collection has (thankfully) never appeared. As he had from the start of his career with the debut album Pretty Hate Machine [1989] and the surprise success of The Downward Spiral, Reznor pushed back against industry expectations of creating new music as filler: “Rather than piss these [songs] away on a greatest-hits record which nobody cares about, including me, why don’t we see if there’s an album in there?'”

Instead, Hesitation Marks would become an affirmation of Reznor’s 25 years as a studio auteur. In real terms, it took Reznor more than a year-and-a-half of writing and recording. Beginning from his usual approach of establishing small strategies and limiting parameters to shape his process, Reznor worked alone at first to explore rhythms and sonic textures. As with the 2007 album Year Zero, which was pieced together on a laptop in the back of a tour bus alongside Atticus Ross, Reznor crafted minimalist arrangements using drum machines and pads – holding off from the more expansive instrumentation of guitars, synth, and piano, a process he described as “feeling around in the dark to see what feels inspiring”. 

Disengaging himself from chord-driven song structures, Reznor was led primarily by rhythm, granting the new music a more immediately danceable edge, from which natural song patterns slowly emerged. Hesitation Marks hints at a mainstream compromise where by either cultural osmosis or conscious effort, Reznor reflected the shiny, slick aesthetic of early ’10s pop music while carrying echoes of 1994’s more groove-driven tracks such as “Heresy” and “Closer”. The earworm melody of Hesitation Marks’ “Satellite”, for example, would not have been out of place on Britney Spears’ 2007 album Blackout and its moody electronics. Elsewhere, Reznor jumps back to the sonic onslaught of fierce guitars, used to shatter the build-up of tracks like “In Two”, suggesting that he is unwilling to lose the necessary tension of discordant melodies and outright aggression that helped to establish Nine Inch Nails as a versatile musical force.

In 2012, Reznor explained to the Quietus how recording The Social Network soundtrack under the gaze of director David Fincher and the film studio demanded that he step down from his usual position of self-centered control: “That’s very different from how Nine Inch Nails operates, where at the end of the day I’m making all the decisions, and in that pyramid of power I’m sitting at the top of that, vision-wise, direction-wise, final vote-wise. I found that I really enjoyed being in that respectful environment, not being at the top of the pyramid.”

The “In Conversation…” interview, released as part of the Hesitation Marks bonus album package, has Reznor speaking into a voice recorder, just as he would take notes of musical ideas. This solo interview becomes more of a creative self-analysis session where Reznor explains that in freeing himself from the obligation of delivering a timely, follow-up record to The Slip, he attempted to break away from typical Nine Inch Nails signature sounds and ingrained studio processes. Still, Hesitation Marks displays the same alienated electronics, musique concrete, and agitated synthpop that makes Reznor’s music stand out. He mentions using some of the (now retro) synths from Pretty Hate Machine, an admission towards musical self-reference and an earnest feint toward nostalgia. 

Hesitation Marks is a continuation of the ghost in the machine aura that runs through Nine Inch Nails’ music, shifting from early experiments of tape manipulation to make delay loops and altering the speed of recordings, now evolving towards developments in laptop-based sound-building and production software. It is light years beyond Reznor’s teenage musical set-up: “My arsenal of sound-making tools had been a Wurlitzer piano that my dad got me. It was a cool instrument on its own, and with a couple of effects pedals, I could put distortion on it. It sounded like a Van Halen track if you played it the right way.”

Reznor fleshed out his densely-layered demos, skeletal pieces of dark hip-hop, and abstract melodies – the heartbeat of a song – in an upgraded studio space alongside Atticus Ross, with Reznor later bringing in trusted producer Alan Moulder and several guest musicians. Working with quiet determination, Hesitation Marks reveals itself to be one of Reznor’s most considered and personal albums, reflecting his new perspective on his life in music. Spare piano keys trigger sequencer chord progressions that unfurle into bigger, monstrous sounds that bloom into richly textured, expansive tracks. This album is a marked step beyond the over-ambitious and sometimes samey double-album sprawl of The Fragile’s ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ sides and the driven narrative self-abasement of The Downward Spiral. Reznor’s most disciplined, assured method of working would shape the tone of Hesitation Marks heavy atmospheres, at once brittle and propulsive, a style that would also be present throughout Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack work, particularly in the 2016 film Patriot’s Day.

Hesitation Marks‘ title signifies Reznor’s shift from submerged, private pain to a long wished-for catharsis that seems just out of reach. A clinical term applied in mental health contexts, ‘hesitation marks’ refers to the sharp-force trauma of small cuts that show a reluctance to commit to deeper incisions, expressing moments of pause, the mark of a second thought before completion of the suicidal act. “They are generally found on the wrists and the neck and tend to be found in multiples, of variable depth and parallel to the deepest cut.” That Reznor would break into the psychological language to frame the spirit of the album reflects the destructive situations he passed through —to death and back— a deeper hurt you carry with you. 

In “Came Back Haunted”, Reznor resurrects his ghost memories of life on the edge. He sings of visiting “the other side”, the blurred lines of his near-death caused by an accidental overdose in 2000, a traumatic experience that stands alongside the suicidal ideation Reznor refers to so much in his earlier songs. If there was any true state of recovery to be achieved through making music, it remained an ongoing process to be lived within, a life’s work. From the perspective of any self-acknowledged addict, recovery is more a condition of being, not an illness to be finally cured or overcome. As stated by David Bowie in a 1999 BBC interview, he would forever be an addict and live accordingly. When asked about the depth of his sobriety, Bowie stated unequivocally that to go back to alcohol, let alone drugs, would cause him to lose his family and eventually his life, a price he was unwilling to pay.

Maintaining his own balancing act of occasional Alcoholics Anonymous support groups since the early 1990s, it was on Bowie’s 1995 collaborative tour with Nine Inch Nails promoting the 1. Outside and The Downward Spiral albums, respectively, when Bowie tried to encourage Reznor not to let addiction overwhelm his creative life, that the rewards of making music that he was so passionate about were still possible without needing to rely on a derangement of the senses to fuel inspiration. Though Bowie’s warning would not be enough to steer Reznor away from substance abuse until he reached his own private nadir a few years later, he would later reflect upon sobriety as a valuable and necessarily guarded state of being where, in spite of their resolve, the addict is always vulnerable to relapse on the turn of one bad decision. 

If Reznor’s return to the public eye of the music world in 2005 was not as a conventionally new or better person, he certainly seemed ‘fitter and happier’. Only on Hesitation Marks, eight years down the line, did he fully expose the fractured and incomplete narrative of the straight recovery journey. It was a dark time that Reznor managed to walk away from. Creatively, it remained an open wound of deeper issues he put off in favor of getting clean and healthy and keeping busy with other projects. With the 2000 Kid A album, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke revealed how much he had internalized the 20th-century breakdown neurosis at the heart of 1997’s OK Computer. Much like that album’s symptomatic opening track, “Airbag” speaks to Reznor’s own “Mr Self Destruct”. Hesitation Marks carries the weight of the survivor ecstatically shocked back into life: I’m still here, still alive – now what? 

Russell Mills mixed-media cover artwork(s) offers a palimpsest vision of Reznor’s scattered reflections. Issued in four different versions (to meet the album’s multiple format release) variously titled “Turn and Burn”, “Time and Again”, “Cargo in the Blood”, and “Other Murmurs”, Mills said: “I’ve tried to make works that obliquely allude to the essence of the subject matter, to its emotional core. I hope that they will invite multiple readings.” A return to the artist and musician’s shared interest in fragile objects confronted with destructive materials, the works resemble a horrific tableau scraped from the mindscape of David Fincher’s Se7en. The canvases show burnt matches carefully placed along deeply scarred wood; smooth velvet is peppered with powdered rust, and tangles of wire and broken moth wings criss-cross divided space. The underlying tensions of the music combine with the terrible beauty of Mills’ work, speaking to a deeper resilience, hard-won and hard-worn, a continued vulnerability that admits to damage and decay as signs of life.

For Hesitation Marks, Mills created vistas of suffering as a necessary experience for growth, expressing the contradiction of pain and triumph in surviving a personal disaster. In 2013, Mills explained to Fader magazine his view of the album as a metaphorical record of accumulated trauma: “You have an air crash, and you have this black box which is a data recorder, and it documents all the factual evidence: cold, analytical, scientific information. And yet you still have this wreckage, which you can’t get your head around. Beyond that physical wreckage, there’s another layer of damage, which is damage caused to people who are related to, or love, the people who were affected by this plane crash. I was talking about this as a kind of analogy for what he’d been through [Reznor], for what I’d been through, and also, hopefully, on a more universal level.”

The imagery Mills created highlights the pained trials of second-guessing hope with only rare moments of affirmation to keep you going. As mistakes of the past cycle back around to catch up with you, we find Reznor trying to escape this same loop of denial and self-doubt that kept him repeating the same patterns of negative behavior. Reznor’s concerns echo Bowie in the darkest period of his mid-1970s cocaine addiction; the 1977 track “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, shows traveling in a vehicle with no steering wheel; the driverless victim becomes a voyeur watching their life happen to them. Speaking of the blurred passage of time under addiction, Reznor said: “You tend to accumulate dramatic bad things when you’re in that place. My house got broken into; how did that happen to me? Oh, my car got stolen, oh I woke up in hospital … it doesn’t sound that out of the ordinary when everything is shitty.”

Dredging up raw material for the album, Reznor forced himself to confront these scenarios with the power of hindsight. Adopting a similarly forensic eye as Mills, it was only years after he lived through their consequences that he could see things clearly, with each fresh mistake gathering into a new blow upon a bruise, though not without some distancing from the person he was – as if it happened to someone else. [The phrase, “a blow upon a bruise”, appears in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which reflects upon a disintegrating friendship between Charles Ryder and his alcoholic friend Sebastian Flyte, who seems destined to pursue a spiral of continued dissipation, unable to stop himself.]

By 2013, Reznor was living in a sober, secure, and happy family environment for many years. However, the album shows that he never fully escaped the shadow of the increasingly alienated and tortured figure of the 1990s. Speaking to NPR in 2013, Reznor said: “I’ve kind of watched with amusement as the press has latched on to ‘Reznor, now 48, happily married with two kids and an Oscar winner,’ as if I can be summed up as that now.” The truth is always more complex and harder to explain. Hesitation Marks is an attempt to touch upon Reznor’s collected fears and haunting anxieties, a distant ticking pulse that never went away.  

As with many artists of the late 1990s, when alternative rock became part of the mainstream grammar of popular music, with a focus on heavy music video rotation on MTV, Reznor awoke one day to find Nine Inch Nails a million-selling, popular rock band, following Woodstock 1994 they became a household name for alternative music. The need to make personally satisfying music, along with continued pressure to maintain critical and commercial success, compounded self-inflicted wounds and internal struggles: “Downward Spiral felt like I had an unending bottomless pit of rage and self-loathing inside me, and I had to somehow challenge something, or I’d explode.”

He became increasingly reliant on drug and alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism, enduring a difficult balance between constant work and the need for collapse, insulating him from the steadily encroaching hyper-reality of the media world. The expanding schedule of the Fragility Tour through 1999 saw Reznor hit peak hype in the MTV-curated popular consciousness. burnt-out by exhaustion, he experienced a near-fatal overdose in 2000: “For me, it was another brick in the wall of realizing, at some point, enough.” In the aftermath of The Fragile and into the clean era of With Teeth, Reznor sought to put a chain on the more straightforward throttled power chords that formed the backbone of those records but also became their stylistic curse.

Since The Downward Spiral, Reznor has crafted additional layers of sound into his music, with each song becoming another aspect of the album’s cohesive whole. This encouraged the listener to consider how the songs reflected one another across a record’s sequencing and to discover new sonic resonances between tracks. Hesitation Marks is made for headphones and would be released in both standard and ‘audiophile’ versions, aimed at giving people with the right sound set-up a richer experience:  “I still try to make music that takes a number of listens to comprehend and can reveal things after 50 listens.”

Reznor was pushing for the patient listener, willing to invest time to appreciate the album fully. In his solo interview, Reznor referred to the ongoing ‘loudness wars’, a production trend begun in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to push the force of volume over nuance and space between instruments. Where in the past, overkill could seem to contain or subvert Reznor’s deeper troubles, these issues would gradually rise up like rocks, revealed after the waves passed. Reznor saw the compromise with technology as a struggle to claw back the finer art of music production as engineering from the high compression rates of the late 1990s ‘loudness wars’: “The compromise that happens when you make things louder and louder is, you lose the dynamic range. The fidelity suffers, but the hype goes up.”

Between the Grooves of Hesitation Marks

This dedication to visceral sound quality is present in Hesitation Marks‘ opener, “The Eater of Dreams”, full of glitches, dissonant, and corrosive static. Hungry, distorted voices call out from the black noise of a buried nightmare, and we are drawn into a collection of songs as a subterranean world. Speaking in a 2013 interview, Reznor said: “I don’t think it’s a gentle record. I do think it’s more subversive in how it gets you. It’s not about everything being at 11 and the pyrotechnics of sound and scare tactics, which I’ve definitely used in the past. But it doesn’t feel like the middle-aged, ‘I’ve-given- up’ record either.” 

Reznor would make more specific references to his era of excess. The mid-album deep cut “All Time Low” takes a caustic swipe at the routine chaos of addiction and uses the suffocating atmosphere of the party and the after-party in both the lyrics and the track’s sonic style. Muddied, thudding sounds offer the second-hand claustrophobia of the dancefloor, its muffled heartbeat breaking through the wall and into a closed-off mind, trying to get away from itself. Rich with the tightly wound paranoia of hiding out in private VIP areas and dingy backrooms, the track is haunted by the struggle to maintain a high in a suddenly shrinking space filling up with hangers-on and blinkered, moody lighting. What starts out as the shared act of careless talk losing its focus, cutting and re-cutting lines, getting lost in the new love of false confidence and fresh inspiration, sinks into a darker reality of individuals separated and closed-off in their own high, sinking into private distances.

Later, this is reduced to taking enough drugs, alone and with increasing secrecy, cursing and protecting our own very private problem just to feel OK, telling ourselves it will be alright, it’s all just for fun, just this once, then things will be different, then the next and the next time it gets pushed further back, hiding behind the belief that you can always take it or leave it. “Shut–the–God-damn–door,” Reznor cries out in a sharpened falsetto. It is always the same voice creeping into your thoughts, the familiar ache of repetition, calling for a little bit more, which never seems quite enough until suddenly you realize you’ve had too much for too long and quitting of your own free will is no longer the option you once thought it was. 

Reznor’s call for closure and isolation doubles as one of the album’s many cries for help, another warning. This could be Reznor in the present slamming the door on a difficult chapter of his life, overwhelmed by difficult thoughts, or fighting to keep out demons that have already been internalized, as he is relegated to a bit-part in his own story. The track’s title also offers a marked reference to Reznor’s gateway David Bowie album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), where he replicates speak-singing-shouting, cadence falling-off at the end of the chorus in “Ashes to Ashes” – “We know Major Tom’s a junkie/Hitting an all-time low”. Each word is a stab to the heart.   

“All Time Low” surges with a fierce groove that continues the warped disco of 1994’s “Heresy”, both drawing on the lineage of Bowie’s embittered 1975 hit “Fame”. Reznor continues his rhythmic stilted yells into the void: “Every–thing–is–not–o–kay”. Reviving the confessions of The Downward Spiral, but this time he stands astride the abyss and mocking his own shadow, twisted by thwarted, self-torturing ambition. With the line “You’ve barely even scratched the skin,” Reznor vocalizes the album title, a wound that fails to reach the depths of his emotional pain. The lyric doubles as a reflection on his troubling commitment to music above life, looking back to a time when bleeding for his art seemed all too necessary to try and realize his personal expectations. In live shows for the 2013 Tension Tour, Reznor sometimes switched lyrics from “Closer” over the outro of “All Time Low”, further teasing the overlapping DNA between the two records arriving from different ends of his biography.

Elsewhere, Reznor would repeat his open-ended recording approach from The Downward Spiral, grabbing instrumental snatches of music from legendary guest players. Guitarist Adrian Belew would return, alongside Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and the bassist Pino Palladino, as with David Bowie and Brian Eno’s experiments of free-playing in the studio, Reznor would drop the musicians into a track for four bars and later edit in their parts to the song, enmeshing them in the layering of sound as to be indistinguishable from the whole. Buckingham and Palladino form their own intertwined rhythms that give “All Time Low” its needling slink and bounce, at once dynamic and atmospheric, which Reznor refers to as both “collaboration and transformation”. It is interesting to note the song’s connection to draft lyrics and instrumental sections that informed The Fragile B-side/outtake “Ten Miles High”, later released on the the expanded Deviations version of the album.

“Copy of A” stands as one of Reznor’s most confessional songs. Nailing the repetitive nature of the recording and touring artist, he highlights the cumulative pressures of making new music as a product while being encouraged to book and extend live tours to meet both public demand and the financial expectations of the record label: “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/Everything I say has come before”. Sucked into a cyclical system, these lines reflect the real-world tensions Reznor has hitched himself to as a professional musician. The initial thrill of seeing the ghost of an idea become music is swallowed up (by the “Eater of Dreams”?) to become another process within the record industry mill.

Trying to stay true to some musical identity without churning out the same albums, haunted by legacy and the weight of a band’s back catalog. The “Copy of A” phrase is perhaps absorbed from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, taken further in the movie adaptation, directed by David Fincher, where the mass cycle of production and consumption has people displacing their true selves and the idea of an authentic life, into the existence of the consumer; under the guise of living well, artifice replaces art.

Reznor makes the song’s form literal, repeating phrases which later become the word ‘echo’ rebounding through a hollow corridor, Reznor meeting his voice returned back to him. It also becomes a statement hinting (again) towards Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence, a further connection with The Downward Spiral. Where Nietzsche’s theory appears doom-laden, at its core, it remains aspirational; we should live fully in such a way that we embrace and are present in every moment as if we might one day have to relive the same life; every decision, every accomplishment, and every mistake; bound to repeat ourselves. In this spirit, we should strive to make the best, most life-affirming choices.

This idea also speaks to the inevitable patterns of addiction: excess, trying to kick, getting clean, and relapse, but it is also a warning against settling for the mundanity of mere existence as a cycle of sleep/eat/fuck repeat. Reznor states this literally in the lyrics to “I Would for You”: “All this has happened all before / And this will happen all again.” Love, like art, rescues and elevates us above the functional sides of life bound to endless time and beyond. The desire for self-transformation, admitting to the pressure to be a ‘better person’ meets the crushing bulwark of frustration on “In Two”, a robotic voice chants back at Reznor about the inevitable violence of brute nature that seeks to bend us back towards the human animal as the divided self that is satisfied in ignorance and abasement, but never truly happy, always lurking under the surface, which still threatens to capsize his life at the most vulnerable and ecstatic moments. 

Shifting gears from its earlier skittish tension, the final third of “Copy of A” shadows the techno-driven backlash in the chorus of 1994’s “Ruiner”, the fallout of a shattered image only realized in a collapsing mirror. Cut-through with warring voices, Reznor is forced into a confrontation with his hollow persona as it threatens to overwhelm him. This is Reznor acknowledging that he is not always so different from his pop peers; he finds himself marched toward the promise of creative freedom that quickly narrows into the cornered idea of Nine Inch Nails (as burning cattle iron ‘NIN’ logo) where success can easily push the artist towards repetition. Once again, Hesitation Marks is defined by Reznor’s aversion to satisfying others and pleasing himself artistically, working against the grain to reinvent himself and, in doing so, overcoming the weight of his back catalog [NPR 2013]. 

Reznor’s struggle with history continues on “Came Back Haunted”, the second single from Hesitation Marks accompanied by a music video shot by David Lynch. The track is punctuated by synth voices and a persistent bass throb, a constant pulse that becomes the rhythmic tongue running up and down the spine of the song, always trailing behind it Reznor’s need for escape. The stuttered lyrics are cut into elliptical call-and-response fragments. Fractured goodbyes answered with an urgent ‘hello’, an errant spirit that remains both present and absent. So much of Reznor’s vocals on Hesitation Marks are percussive, more instrumental than emotive, pushing for aural impact rather than surface grammar. On “Came Back Haunted”, we hear him banging his head against the wall of his mind, caged by blame-filled overthinking that he “just can’t stop”. The song ends with that closing word, cutting the music dead. 

Reznor’s call for silence expresses the desperate need for mental quiet, reaching back into the lyrical DNA of The Downward Spiral, where Reznor would first mention the line “nothing can stop me now” in the second track from The Downward Spiral “Piggy” and the return to it in the songs “Ruiner” and “Big Man With a Gun” – becoming a megalomaniac mantra of the album’s reactivity between poles of god-like ego and overwhelming self-loathing. The theme of putting the brakes on a runaway life would recur in “Into The Void” from The Fragile (1999), where Reznor sings: “trying to save myself / But myself keeps slipping away.”

We find Reznor, watching himself, again looking back to the person he was in 1994, a doppelganger who he can never fully turn his back on; both of them are trapped in the same echo chamber, doomed to live through one another’s reflection. Speaking to the Guardian in 2013, Reznor said: “This record was written as the other side of that journey. The despair and loneliness and rage and isolation and the not-fitting-in aspect that still is in me, but I can express that in a way that feels more appropriate to who I am now.”

A more seductive, bittersweet track, “Find My Way”, returns to the grounded struggle of self-overcoming, replacing ego with the admission of true vulnerability. Looking forward, in the shadow of the past, toward some kind of better future he cannot imagine, Reznor hints at the challenge of following a twisted path towards contentment, or at least a place of safety. Reznor’s earnest croon smoothes out the fraught and jagged edges of earlier tracks as a gently clipped beat and trickling piano suggest a near-ballad that lives as an open-hearted hymn to inertia and confusion. The song’s leading line suggests that difficult point where travel meets with distance to become a kind of inner stasis, a relentless motion that goes nowhere. Reznor yearns for a retreat from the infinite cycle of touring, being eaten up by the endless passage of miles in a great loop only to arrive back where he started, a home life that has continued without him and, for that short while, seems to have forgotten him.

Though family life would always be rewarding and serve as a grounding foundation to reality, Reznor argued that touring inevitably forced him to miss out on key moments of his children’s lives, the act of their growing up, without him, such that bringing his family on tour with him became a concession of surviving the process. In the outro to “Find My Way”, Reznor and Ross layer on thickening distortion and looped chants met with saxophone calls; Reznor’s plaintive vocal sinks into deeper isolation, a man always smothered by the next horizon.

Despite the poppy, seemingly upbeat affirmation of “Everything”, the song continues in the vein of a bittersweet survivor’s song. For an album that eschews outright heaviness in favour of rigor and restraint, the song remains undercut by deeper, conflicted tensions of hope and regret, like “All Time Low”, we find Reznor caught between the eliding past and some impossible future. A shorter, snappier song just scratching over the three-minute mark, its optimism is marred by harsh realism where Reznor has already “lost so much along the way”. The sheer pace of the song finds him desperately making up for lost time. Even where the chorus layers on the flood of mental traffic, New Order-style guitar chords, soaring synths, and bounding-reverb vocals zipping past, the pure drive of self-discovery ends in a lack of resolution, sucked down into a black hole of static.

Reznor points to being overshadowed by the absolutist metaphor of his own excesses: creative ambition, drug addiction, sexual fascination, depression, and self-loathing, trapped in a narrowing tunnel of thought, where mental illness clouds our perceptions to the point that our reality becomes distorted by self-mythologizing. A hymn to introverted megalomania, the “everything” in Reznor’s life almost killed him. This internal conflict stems from a warped root manifest in 1994’s “The Becoming”, after which Reznor jumps forwards to “I Do Not Want This”, where he rants into the microphone:  “I want to do everything”, compounded by the need to do “something that matters”, a self-lacerating vision that “Find My Way” suggests might have finally been fulfilled, “I have been to every place” a slow-burn realization tainted with melancholy. 

Other tracks emphasize the further sifting of layers; “Various Methods of Escape” and “Running” bear the hallmarks of Thom Yorke’s first solo album, 2007’s The Eraser, particularly in the chanted, breathless phrasing where Reznor gets caught up in repetition as words begin to shed their meaning. Elsewhere “I Would For You” offers a rare admission of romantic life outside of Hesitation Marks claustrophobic intensity. Reznor finds himself wanting to invite a widescreen chorus to ease the album away from sinking cynicism while also marking what is most important to him. 

Hesitation Marks derails the straight-line narrative from success to excess. Reznor reflects upon his deeper struggles with depression, self-loathing, and grief. While he sets himself firmly in the present tense, the album views the past at a distance while admitting that our personal history remains an open wound, revealing a more complex intermingling of experience and deeper cumulative trauma, a shadow-self that never leaves you. The outro of the album’s last song, “While I’m Still Here”, is again punctuated by guitar licks and bass flourishes from Reznor’s session players. It edges into a final hint of menace with “Black Noise”, heaping on cavernous echoes, a final reminder that the dark times are never far away.

Realizing a broad and enervating sonic palette, Hesitation Marks revealed new territory for Nine Inch Nails. Writing in The Guardian in 2013, Ben Beaumont-Thomas views the record as “an industrial cousin to Radiohead’s In Rainbows that flips between glowering glitchtronica and whoomp-laden rock”. Speaking in his 2013 “In Conversation…” interview, Reznor would be at pains to mark the connection between Hesitation Marks and The Downward Spiral, collaborating with Alan Moulder, down to the album artwork and font choices, by implication, forming a loose trilogy with The Fragile

Now a decade old, Hesitation Marks enjoys a slow-burn reappraisal from committed Nine Inch Nails fans. Easily overlooked for its lack of guitar-heaviness and lack of ‘hits’, it offers a dark heart with a slick electronics sheen. It endures as a singular Nine Inch Nails record of consistent quality and accessibility. Looking over recent Reddit discussions, it is heartening to see so many newer (younger) listeners approach the album with fresh ears while longer-haul fans are encouraged to give the record another chance and are often rewarded for their patience. Reznor would reflect that, along with Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder, he was further changed by a sometimes difficult and challenging recording process; the trio emerged closer than ever, producing a unique record that altered how people would see the entire Nine Inch Nails discography — and Trent Reznor as an artist.

This article is dedicated to mistercakelul.

Works Cited

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Nosnitsky, Andrew. “I Survived Everything: An Interview with Trent Reznor“. The Fader. 24 September 2013.

Trent Reznor: “I’m Not The Same Person I Was 20 Years Ago“. All Things Considered. NPR.. 4 September 2013.

Raggett, Ned. “On the Wing: Trent Reznor on Creativity and How to Destroy Angels“. The Quietus. 10 December 2012.

Reznor, Trent. “Trent Reznor, Conversation With…“. YouTube. 2013.

Ryder, Caroline. “Trent Reznor Q&A“. Dazed Digital. 4 September, 2013.

Zelenko,  Michael and Zeichner, Naomi. “We’re in This Together: An Oral History of Nine Inch Nails“. Fader. 23 September 2013