Nine Inch Nails

Hesitation Marks

"I’ve beat myself up over the years and I need to try new things, I need to push myself, I need to break the machine, I need to step away from things that feel comfortable to me, and I think I’m still deep in the process of trying that."

Trent Reznor said this to me in an interview for the Quietus last autumn, shortly before he confirmed elsewhere that he’d be bringing back Nine Inch Nails in some new form in the near future. And so it’s proved – single leaks, summer festival touring and now, given the de rigueur official promo leak and stream, a new album in full. Divisions are rapidly stabilising between those who have heard it and love it and those who are violently down on it, in both cases coming from the viewpoints of longterm fans all in all. But concluding it’s a sometimes enjoyable if never quite a breakout listen might be the simplest, and more accurate take.

If that seems less considered judgment than wishy-washy handwave, maybe it’s because Hesitation Marks could almost live up to part of its name in a sense of ‘am I back, or not?’ Reznor is now almost a quarter-century into a high profile career, and however many collaborations and side projects have also come along, he is still marked by a flailing and mud-covered identity he’s tied up with part and parcel, of songs and videos about fucking and crowns of shit. Little surprise that so many people I’ve seen bring him up over the past couple of weeks speak of him in terms of their own teenage angst they’re happy to have left behind or regard with due care and distance; even less surprise that Reznor himself seems to agree with them totally. The Oscar-winning family man popping up in a photograph on Instagram taking his young kids to Disneyland is in the end like one of so many similar people you can see at that same park day in and day out, Wax Trax drums and classic rock ponderousness hidden away in a mental framework from the past rather than explicitly acted out or shown.

I’ve already wondered a couple of times what would have happened if Hesitation Marks was released as a solo album straight up, despite whatever collaborators he worked with — Trent Reznor’s ‘first’ standalone release that wasn’t for the movies, and maybe just a little more able to be seen differently as a result. But it isn’t, down to the packaging – in fact, it’s precisely that packaging along with the album name that encapsulates the loaded expectations at play.  The Downward Spiral progressed and ended on a fixed point, a name focused on a suicidal conclusion, Russell Mills’ cryptic cover art suggesting a pulsing and scarring cracking across a flat landscape. And now Mills is back with more art, Hesitation Marks as a term refers to scars or other evidence of a suicidal person wanting to stop and fight and live. It’s not a sequel, but it’s something more openly acknowledging and standing in the shadow of the past than most.

It’s also a release that has been part of a hyper-productive churn by Reznor’s past standards, something that’s less of a return from nowhere than just another part of a much bigger canvas than before. From 1989 to 1999, he released three albums, one EP, a clutch of associated singles and remix collections, coordinated a couple of soundtracks. After a six-year break which covered his rehab, it hasn’t even been a full decade yet in which he’s already released four more NIN albums, one of which was a double album of instrumentals, two full movie soundtracks, collaborative work with How to Destroy Angels, various production efforts and more besides, not to mention what seemed like a near-endless cycle of touring for some years. If this had been the first thing we’d heard of Reznor in a long while, as was so often the case in the past, both expectations and reactions might have been more explosive – instead this is more like Fall Out Boy coming back when it seemed like they had just taken a hiatus the other day.

So what exactly does that make this album, post-Oscar awards, after everything going on? The last full NIN release, The Slip, was something of a summary of his late 2000s burst of activity, touching on everything from modern rock shoutalongs to ambient murmurings. There’s still plenty of that here, and there’s more than a little hint of The Downward Spiral musically as much as anything else: song fragments, shifting transitions, rigorous processes disrupted and carefully re-sculpted. Plus, of course, more than a few moments where everything changes from full sound to almost nothing on a dime. If there’s not quite an overt concept as such, there’s definitely a flow, lyrics touching on progression, curiosity, the interpersonal, keeping oneself together after something massive rather than slowly being torn apart by it, a living ghost looking back at a dead past. ‘Find My Way’ may be yet another of his self-pity-after-the-breakup numbers, but he sounds less angry than calmly moving on, the combination of space, beats and piano one of those things that just sounds like him no matter what.

As that song and plenty of others also show, perhaps building a bit off some of the How to Destroy Angels efforts as well, it’s Reznor’s most explicitly electronic album in years under the NIN name. ‘Came Back Haunted’ gave a sense of that when it first emerged months ago, followed by ‘Copy of A’, and those tracks early on shout back to the shuddering impulses of the industrial/dance scene that shaped his early reception and which he relentlessly moved beyond. Percussion comes most often via click, clap, pulse, throb, interwoven collages of same. Sure, there’s also the bemusing ‘Everything’, which caused more than a few ‘what the’ reactions a month ago thanks to its careening strut of a lead guitar line and practically peppy arrangement.  For all the Smashmouth jokes, if anything the guitar breaks almost seem like a nod to something like the early Cult or something similarly huge and postpunk, whatever the term actually means any more.  

But what’s also key is what by default has been missing from Reznor’s collaborative or instrumental projects in recent years – his voice, and how he uses it. For a guy who has a voice that’s at once singular and often easily parodied – one friend of mine summed him up in the mid-90s with a scrunched, screaming "YOUUUUU!" moment – he knows exactly how to strip it down, double or triple it up, play it in counterpoint with itself (for me that’s even more of a striking moment on ‘Everything’ than the guitars, when he matches himself on the second verse).  Even more than that, he knows how to use it with the beats – and this is where Pretty Hate Machine remains a core template too, from that first time you heard his voice slipping through the combination of drums and clicks on ‘Head Like a Hole’.  

Even more of a core point about those moments of vocals and rhythm in perfect sync: it’s Prince. No matter how torn up and explosive, he’s also wanted to be Prince at his most futuristic and spare, if maybe with a little extra echo and bass – check the credits for Pretty Hate Machine for an early shout-out – and he’s been able to pull it off a lot more than some to transform it into his own thing.  It’s why ‘Closer’ worked so well, then and now (not to mention the still underrated ‘Into The Void’ from The Fragile) while on this album, it’s why ‘Satellite’ rumbles and clicks like the Neptunes at THEIR most stripped down and Prince-obsessed. As for Reznor’s singing, his falsettos have rarely sounded so accomplished, so actually sweet in the moments he uses them – when he shifts to them on the first verse of ‘All Time Low’ before moving into a purring slink of a chorus, it’s definitely thrilling, while the ghostly use of them on ‘In Two’, especially when he strips out a fierce rhythm in favour of a distanced guitar riff, makes for another striking moment.

Still, the album misses a defining moment, a standout mesmerisation, at least on first blush.  There’s no ‘Head Like a Hole’, no ‘Happiness in Slavery’, no ‘The Hand That Feeds’, not even a ‘Discipline’ – and definitely no "Hurt." Songs emerge with re-listening a little more individually but nothing feels quite like a decisive ‘this is IT’ turn. It works as an overall experience and Reznor would doubtless like nothing happier in a world of chopped up playlists and continual revisions and reorganisations – it feels just like a Nine Inch Nails album, it progresses enjoyably, it sounds good given his long-identified and concentrated-on strengths. Guitars slide and chop and create ambient feedback when they appear, any time a big beat comes along the feeling is almost nervously tactile, and he might as well be speaking ‘piano in a vast space’ as a second language now.

Hesitation Marks is in the end a bit of a curious beast, after the explosions of noise, the portrayals of degradation and collapse, the venting about and against dystopias, everything that’s charged up or underscored so much of what is Nine Inch Nails as opposed to simply Trent Reznor. It’s a roiling, often tense, but just a little more calm and contemplative NIN, seemingly content to emerge and exist rather than to sweep all before it or punctuate a point. It may be more than some would care for, it may be less than some had hoped for. But just possibly, for now, for him, it’s actually just right.

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