Label: Columbia Records
When Nine Inch Nails release a new album, it’s BIG news, and so again it feels like another one of those reviews where an introduction or brief history of Nine Inch Nails (and Trent Reznor) is pretty pointless considering the throne that Reznor has built for his experimental project since the late 80’s. But there is a little context that needs to be run over on the few years prior to this release…
In 2009, after a successful tour with Jane’s Addiction, Reznor announced that NIN would be put on hold – but this was far from a break for Trent. In 2010, he focused his attention and efforts on How To Destroy Angels (a project with producer Atticus Ross and wife Mariqueen Maandig of West Indian Girl) and the band has released two EPs and an album so far. In the same year, he and Atticus Ross collaborated on the soundtrack for David Fincher’s “The Social Network”, racking the duo awards at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Then in late 2011, the duo collaborated yet again for the soundtrack of the UK/US version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, which included a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song with Karen O and How To Destroy Angels’ track Is Your Love Strong Enough?.
Then in 2012, it was announced that possible writing for Nine Inch Nails might ensue, although nothing really solid promised to the fans. Out of the blue in May this year, Trent posted that the new album was finished, and so we arrive with the eighth studio album by Nine Inch Nails… or Halo 28 in the entire discography.
The first feeling you get from this – despite Reznor explaining that he isn’t the same person he was ten or so years ago – is that “Hesitation Marks” is almost like a journey through the lifetime of Nine Inch Nails; both stylistically and lyrically. Yes, he has stated that he’s meditated on his past self, the changes in his life and where he is now but the album flows so fluently that it’s really not that obvious if the melding of styles are unconscious or concious. It can seem like collage that’s built upon itself, or layered, rather than side-by-side.
There are a few notes to make on this album and I have to get personal for it.
The first is that there are several versions of the album in packages and mastering. The album is available for download in two versions: the ordinary mastering (same as CD) and the ‘audiophile’ mastering – which is Reznor’s preferred choice. My copy is the deluxe CD with the three remix tracks on a bonus disk. Secondly, as each track has credits for who contributes on them, Reznor is practically on his own for the most part and even when drummer Ilan Rubin appears, he’s simply credited for ‘toms’. So even the majority of the drums/cymbals on here are electronic – so I’ll call them beats instead…
The Eater Of Dreams starts the album as a 50-second intro that sounds like a warm-up of electronic instruments – mostly keys and synths – that throb into an intense distortion which cuts off as soon as Copy Of A comes in with its mid-paced techo synth-line. The song unfolds into a dancey affair, especially with the electronic basis of it and Reznor’s calm vocals delivering repetitions of lines like “I am just an echo of an echo of an echo” and “I am just a finger on a trigger on a finger”. It feels like it could have easily fitted in “Year Zero”, but never really leads to any bombast that most material had on that album.
Came Back Haunted is a much darker and interesting experience. It opens with the beat on its own (which sounds chirpy at that moment) and there’s a second or two of almost gleeful keys. However, when Trent’s vocals enter, so does this low and almost leering bass and the emotional direction of the track takes a more sinister turn. There’s several changing layers of electronics that texture the track differently during the verses, bridges and choruses. The chorus is perhaps one of the catchier and more outstanding moments on the album: the big sound and timing of it all, along with Reznor’s layered sharp and sour delivery, is heavily reminiscent of the “With_Teeth” era. The pronunciation of “I came back hau-nted” sounds eerily like ‘I came back home dead’, a mistake I made when first listening to it.
Fourth track, Find My Way, has a glitchy approach concerning the hollowed beats and dreamy electronics, while Reznor’s vocals float above it all. But this is where the problem begins on “Hesitation Marks” – this style is pretty much the staple for the majority of the album. While it’s very soothing and far from offensive; it is a gradual mundane grinder of patience and expectation. Simply put, Find My Way and the good portion of what follows, feels like “Ghosts I-IV” but with vocals. It sounds forceful at times, exampled best by this track in the simple rhyme scheme: most lines ending with -ay and -e/-ee. It’s tiring and unrewarding, and so I’ll name the tracks that feel this way just to get them out of the way…
Disappointed is a faster-paced yet equally as unadventurous ordeal and this time Reznor’s vocals are muddied underneath everything else. Tenth track Running is another that easily slips the mind, as does In Two, which sounds like a hybrid between a “Fixed” remix and a “Year Zero” track. While I’m Still Here and Black Noise are basically the same track split in two with a continuing beat through both, and while the soundscapes are nice, it could easily have easily survived without any vocals.
Those are the main negatives on this album, there are others too, but at least bring variety into the mix than feeling like moments of sonic blur. So, let’s pick up where I left off…
After Find My Way is All Time Low, which is pretty interesting with its twangy and groovy guitar. The whole vibe of the track presents a strong David Bowie vibe (who is a known influence on Reznor – the two appearing together on Bowie’s I’m Afraid Of Americans single) with a seductive tone not far from the likes of Closer. Then the controversial seventh track, Everything, is thee most bizarre thing as far as all things Nine Inch Nails is concerned. Everything simply glows and shines, full of positivity with the clean and enthusiastic guitar, Reznor melodically announces to the world “I survived everything / I have tried everything”. The song feels so 80’s that I feel a mullet growing while this song is played… and that’s a positive here!
Satellite has a slight dance club/R’n’B feel with playful yet restrained vocals and a simple beat (joined by claps later on) – and while it has more activity than the those tracks I listed earlier, it’s still equally as boring. Various Methods Of Escape has a strong trip-hop atmosphere during the verses with the a hollowed-out vocals surrounded by the beat and minimal electronics; but then bursts into a solid chorus that catches your attention with its slightly calmer “With_Teeth” feel. There’s even a “The Fragile” moment towards the end with lone tribal-esque drums, similar to the style on tracks like Into The Void and I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally.
Running, like Satellite, is another that doesn’t quite step into the style of those listed tracks, but still feels like a chore to stop yourself skipping. I Would For You is slightly more engaging with its brooding, bass keys and intricate beats, while the guitar softly chugs as Reznor snarls with the opening lines “What a pathetic string of words / Just leave them lying on the floor / The warning posted on the door / Not over here, not anymore”. The mood shifts during the chorus, feeling like a dedication or promise to a loved one, and there’s a slight progression throughout the song that nicely builds the anticipation for each chorus. The song is followed by In Two, While I’m Still Here and Black Noise. In fairness, Black Noise brings the album to a nicely chaotic and noisey end with roaring distortion and screams – and this is the thing: it feels like the album should have had more of those moments earlier on.
Trent Reznor is a man who is no longer plagued with self-hatred, doubt and drugs. He is married now and has a child. You can’t expect ‘1994 Trent Reznor’ to come on call when ‘2013 Reznor’ seems to be enjoying a good and fulfilling life. So while he is an incredibly busy and awe-inspiring musician; he’s settled down and “Hesitation Marks” really shows it. There is fluidity and a calculated craft here but it just feels like an ambient album that never intended to be one.
The album starts strong and great with the first three tracks, but then hits a sort of turbulence there on in… and it’s the rougher areas that keep you engaged. Tracks like Find My Way, Disappointed and Running are easily ignorable but then the likes of Everything, All Time Low and I Would For You inject interesting ideas and sounds; and perhaps only then that might be in comparison to the tracks they’re surrounded by. The tracks are long too, and unfortunately feel even longer than some of them really are. Ignoring the opening and closing tracks, only one drops below 4-minutes and the whole album is over an hour long.
That said, this album may sit completely right with those who like the mellower and controlled side to Nine Inch Nails. It’s easily imaginable that “Hesitation Marks” will be a wholly enjoyable and engaging album to sit through and it’s easy to see why the fans have split into two receptive extremes over this release. Personally, it’s a little disappointing, for what little security being a “big NIN fan” grants me. If you’re hoping for the spitting and angst-ridden side of Nine Inch Nails – “The Downward Spiral” and “With_Teeth” eras – this is probably not for you. For those who prefer “Ghosts I-IV” and the softer tracks from “The Slip”, then this will probably be very appealing.