Trent Reznor's one-man industrial machine Nine Inch Nails has done it again. Coming off a hiatus in which he scored The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, earning an Oscar in the process for the former, he's left no doubt that he's still got the amazing musical talent that was so evident on 1994's extremely dark The Downward Spiral. During this time he also wrote the theme for the immensely popular first-person shooter Call Of Duty's latest installment, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, as well as his first release as How to Destroy Angels. Now, he's gone back to what made him famous in the first: making great Nine Inch Nails record.
Released this past Tuesday, Hesitation Marks can be seen mainly as a toned-down version of The Downward Spiral. Dark themes are still present, but the instrumentation and production are less harsh, the lyrics less vulgar and more nuanced. This is not to say the album is weak in any way; comparing an album's intensity to The Downward Spiral is like comparing an album's angst to Nevermind; it just can't be beat. Instead, Hesitation Marks wallows in a more subtle kind of despair, one that's less direct and more hushed. Whereas The Downward Spiral showcased youthful fury and turmoil, Hesitation Marks manifests a more mature anger, with somewhat hopeful moments shining through every now and again. Still, it's a considerably grim album, categorized by repeating keyboard blips and Reznor's signature growl. It's one of those records that gets better with each listen - streaming it as I write, I'm noticing things I hadn't picked up on before and I don't think I've yet enjoyed it more than I am right now.
Instrumental opener "The Eater of Dreams" sets an eerie tone straight from the get go just by its title alone. The fifty-three second track creaks along before distorted yells make their way into the mix, preparing the listener for the next thirteen tracks aptly. Up next is the bleak "Copy of A," which opens with an unembellished keyboard riff and gradually evolves into a full-on synth wash in a similar manner to the second half of Reznor's controversial and explicit hit "Closer." Violent lyrics are still present here ("I am just the finger on a trigger"), but so are more introspective ones ("I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow, always trying to catch up with myself"). It's one of the stronger songs here, and deserved its single status.
Lead single "Came Back Haunted" slots in at third, and contains some of the best lyrics and melodies on the record. Reznor's vocals really stand out here, as he sings with a sense of renewal after an apparent near-death experience ("Saw some things on the other side"). The synth work here is magnificent here as well, and I consider it the best song on the record.
"Find My Way" is definitely one the quieter, slower, simpler songs on the album, but it also one of the most desperate ones. A disjointed drum pattern and poignant lyrics such as "Lord my path has gone astray, I'm just trying to find my way" depict an older Reznor possibly regretting some of his actions. The first four tracks of the album are all fantastic in their own unique way, which speaks volumes to how great of a musical mind Trent Reznor is.
Nine Inch Nails' aggressive, intimidating side only appears in small glimpses on Hesitation Marks, but more cynical moments can be found on tracks five and six, "All Time Low" and "Disappointed." "All Time Low" is certainly the more violent of the two, with lyrics like "get down on the floor" speaking for themselves. The second of the two is more of a warning than anything else, as a muffled Reznor cautions the listener, "If i were you, I wouldn't trust a single word I say." Reznor has always been an extremely intelligent guy, and his albums tend to follow one of two paths; either he tries to make a political statement, as he did with "The Hand That Feeds" and the entire Year Zero record, or he writes an album exploring the depths of human psyche, usually the negative parts. The latter of the two is definitely what he's going for here, and I think it's both more unique and effective. While many other bands have used music to speak their minds, Reznor's personal struggles give him a rare combination of insight into feelings of depression and the musical genius to portray those emotions accurately. Reznor's music has always been pretty emotionally transparent, and the schizophrenic seventh song "Everything" embodies this excellently.
"Everything" starts of as a jovial, head-bopping pop-punk riff & vocal line one might find on a Jimmy Eat World album. But, if one listens closely, there is a hint of cynicism in his voice as he sings "I've survived everything," but not without a dash of pride. Soon, however, the apparent happiness of the verse transforms into a panicked, quickly derailing chorus that calls the speaker's sanity into question. "All the walls begin dissolve away," Reznor states without bothering to add the particle 'to' to the infinitive, adding, "Do your hands begin to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake?" Then the verse returns, more content than ever before. This wild swing of emotions will absolutely catch you off guard, another thing Reznor does so well. The song may be talking about someone who is saying goodbye and has conflicting emotions of peace and terror.
Though still strong, the second half of the album drags on a little too long, and some of the songs begin to blend together. Standout tracks here the slow-burning "Various Methods of Escape," the pleading "I Would For You," and the looming instrumental finisher "Black Noise."
All in all, Hesitation Marks covers all of the expected bases from a Nine Inch Nails record and then some. Songs like "Came Back Haunted" and "Everything" are immediate classics, fitting in seamlessly with other legendary NIN tracks. "Copy Of A," "Find My Way," and hold their ground as well and should by no means be overlooked. While there's nothing that compares to the gloomy masterpiece "Hurt" here, and nothing is quite as abrasive as past songs like "Heresy" or "Big Man With a Big Gun," Reznor's latest output is still something to take notice off. The man's a legend, and shows that nearly twenty years after his most insurmountable achievement and almost 25 years into a career that he still has what it takes to mark a beautifully dark album. Listen to key tracks below, and check out some of Nine Inch Nail's other works on iTunes/YouTube/Spotify, etc. while you're at it.
Key tracks: "Copy of A," "Came Back Haunted," "Find My Way," "Everything"