In the past decade, Nine Inch Nails have earned more notice for how they release their records than the songs that are actually on them. In his attempts to reach audiences beyond his faithful base of goths and gamers, Trent Reznor has embraced both high concepts (2007’s interactive song-cycle Year Zero) and low overhead (2008’s self-released offerings Ghosts I-IV and The Slip); even a guy who got famous by screaming needed a good news hook to get himself heard over the incessant din of a quick-click online-music marketplace. For his latest Nine Inch Nails release, Reznor is resorting to the most radical release strategy an independent-minded artist can employ in 2013: he’s re-signed to a major label. Those e-commerce experiments proved NIN can remain a viable business in the absence of corporate-funded marketing campaigns, but he presumably wants something that not even 100 per cent royalty rates can buy you: to be a game-changing pop cultural force once again. And despite what tech-topian industry analysts would have us believe, for the time being at least, traditional tools like global major-label distribution and aggressive radio promotion still often mean the difference between an artist being a household name or a merely respected one.
That said, even as Reznor is rallying everyone from David Lynch to Downward Spiral cover artist Russell Mills to heighten the sense of occasion, he’s not giving his Columbia Records benefactors an easy sell: The aptly titled Hesitation Marks is a record that pokes and prods and teases instead of going in for the kill. It’s the first record to bear the Nine Inch Nails name since Reznor announced a hiatus in 2009 but the valorous comeback narrative is undermined by the fact that Reznor often took five years to release new NIN albums anyway. Not to mention the fact that he's remained highly active in the interim, releasing two albums with his trip-hoppy outfit How to destroy angels while embarking on a successful composing career that allowed us to see what he looks like in a suit. And yet Hesitation Marks is stuffed with more knowing resurrection references than Jay Z’s Kingdom Come-- for an artist whose every second lyric has begun with the word “I,” this could be Reznor’s most intensely self-reflexive work yet. But unlike the themes of depression, madness, and addiction that defined his most enduring music, Hesitation Marks chronicles a more existential crisis of relevance. Accordingly, its sound is skeletal and spare, as if picking up right where The Slip’s more subdued second act left off, with Reznor's usual adrenalized aggression replaced with jagged digital tics and queasy atmospheres.
And yet the more austere, minimalist approach allows Reznor to explore the outer limits of the Nine Inch Nails sound. Notwithstanding the ambient excursions of Ghosts I-IV, NIN’s song-based post-millennial discography has mostly functioned within the sonic parameters laid down by Reznor’s all-time favorites-- Depeche Mode, Berlin-era David Bowie, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Jane’s Addiction, and a pinch of Prince-- while seeming impervious to shifts in the contemporary dance-rock landscape. Hesitation Marks is much more in tune with the spartan grooves of the xx and the elastic electro of the Knife than his usual arena-rattling influences: “Copy of A” follows an uncannily similar trajectory as the latter duo’s “Full of Fire”, locking into a motorik beat that remains coolly resolute in the face of all the intensifying textural disorder mounting overtop of it. In a world where there are no more Stabbing Westwards to kick around, Reznor directs the song’s critique of conformity at himself: “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before.”
For a song that acknowledges the predictability of lapsing into old patterns, “Copy of A” ironically marks an intriguing change of pace for Nine Inch Nails, stripping down their metal machine music and rebuilding it with only the most integral scraps. The best songs here follow a similar process of gradually fleshing out a skeleton, from the fidgety funk of “Satellite” to the disquieting drive of “Disappointed”, where wondrous, Indian-inspired string swirls -- a la the Beatles’ “Within You, Without You”-- cut through the song’s claustrophobic clap-track. And even when the threadbare presentation casts a harsh light on the odd underwritten lyric (“Hey!/ Everything is not/ Okay!”), Reznor introduces new melodic changes to push a song in unexpected new directions: just when you think “All Time Low” can’t get any closer to “Closer”, the song detours into a kaleidoscopic coda that introduces a brief flash of radiant colour to Nine Inch Nails’ typically grim and grimy terrain.
But the danger of stretching your sound out to its extremities is that it will eventually snap back in your face, and the completely incongruous “Everything” overcompensates forHesitation Marks’ ominous mood with a wincingly bright pop-punk chug-- and unflatteringly strained vocal from Reznor-- that sounds like a second-stage Warped Tour act trying to cover “Just Like Heaven”. And the album is ultimately lacking in the concision and sequential logic that made The Slip such an invigorating late-career triumph. For every circuit-overloading workout like “Copy of A” and “Disappointed”, there are a number of tracks where Reznor reverts to the teeth-gnashing angst of old without the pig-marching blitzkriegs to back it up, applying undue pressure on the the songs’ brittle structures. The all-too-aptly titled single “Came Back Haunted” is just that, a ghost of Nine Inch Nails’ more convincing ragers, while the album’s second half in particular is bogged down by dead-weight plodders (“Various Methods of Escape”, “I Would For You”, “In Two”) whose predictably amped-up choruses can’t enliven their sputtering tempos and flagging energy.
Alas, their presence mutes the impact of the strategically placed penultimate piece “While I’m Still Here”, which, with better lead-in tracks, could’ve served as a more dramatic comedown moment, but here feels like a pained stumble to the finish line; when Reznor says, “I’m still here”-- overtop a synth line that flickers like a dying fluorescent light tube-- it feels less like a statement of survival and defiance than the ennui-ridden admission of an office drone. But in the album’s dying moments, an encouraging sign of life emerges: a surprisingly playful series of saxophone blurts give way to the closing “Black Noise”, a slow-motion 90-second swell of grueling guitar noise that feels like all of this album’s simmering tension bubbling up to the surface and ready to erupt. Hopefully, next time, Reznor will unleash it without hesitation.
Pitchfork's consesus? 7.0/10. What do you think of the album, ONTD? Also, never 4get this gem when he got a 6.2 for HTDA's "Welcome Oblivion" lol