Like half of the albums Trent Reznor and company have released since Pretty Hate Machine helped prompt a shift of sound in 1989, Hesitation Marks — Nine Inch Nails’ eighth studio album in 25 years — opens with a swelling instrumental track that marches right up to (but never quite seamlessly transitions into) the next. This time, it’s “The Eater of Dreams,” a track that begins with a few spots of sound — a couple of rhythmic beeps — before adding another layer, then another, and so on, like forgotten acoustic conduits, some reawakened after such a prolonged slumber they were thought to have been forever disappeared, drowsily seeping towards a growing deluge.
And we’re only 53 seconds in.
The real meat of the album begins henceforth, kicking off with “Copy of a,” a catchy number that starts with a looping set of five 16th notes with a rest thrown in, making the downbeat difficult to keep track of until the synth bass drum and snare combo drop nine seconds later. According to Reznor, the song is “really about repetition and starting to layer small elements of rhythm, percussion and treatment of vocal into something that is meant to feel hypnotic but slightly unnerving,” and like the preponderance of Reznor’s body of work (and essentially every other song on the album), it deceptively adheres to pop songwriting guidelines.
“Came Back Haunted,” the second track — and the first taste of the album the public was privy to once this musical powerhouse’s promotional gears began turning — serves as confirmation of the album’s overall suicide/death/addiction/survival/rebirth themed title (Hesitation Marks is phrase used to describe the initially tentative incisions made during a suicide attempt or cutting ritual), anchored by such telling lines as, “Saw some things on the other side/Made me promise to never tell/But you know me, I can’t help myself.” The chorus is triumphantly defiant, echoing doom and gloom in as much a sing-a-long nature as aurally possible without sacrificing mood.
Some of the songs are certainly evocative of past NIN albums, such as the patient, meditative “Find My Way,” which could be believably purported to be a rerecorded layover from the Pretty Hate Machine sessions, the Year Zero-like duo of “All Time Low” (almost a sister track to “The Good Soldier” in both cadence and lyrical inanity) and “While I’m Still Here” (like ”The Greater Good,” but with more decipherable prose, including a lyrical nod to Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues from Waitin’”), and “In Two” (a complex work that would have easily felt at home on the 1994 game-changer, The Downward Spiral).
Though curiously lacking in the electric guitar-charged hooks most of his albums have relied on (though there are appearances by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham and King Crimson’s Adrian Belew), Reznor certainly compensates for their absence with beguiling complexities that benefit from repeat run-throughs.
“I aspire to make a record that sounds better 10 listens in than it does after two — and still, at 50 listens, you’re picking out things that add a depth and a thoughtfulness,” he said in a recent interview on NPR. “Those are the kind of records that always changed my life, that make it feel like my brain got larger or my taste widened a bit, so I try to make those types of records myself.”
In a popular music landscape overgrown with heavily produced songs featuring lyrics that resemble the Head-On commercial, it’s refreshing to have Reznor back, and in top form. Though it is unlikely he’ll ever be a candidate in even the drunkest of dorm room “greatest lyricists” debates, he still delivers at least a pair of thought-provoking lines per song and, in the instance of the perfectly dark and poppy “Various Methods of Escape,” he waxes with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness on the subject: “A line of lyric looping in my head/The body listening/It doesn’t really matter anymore/Yes, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Running,” and “I Would for You,” are both serviceable in their delivery and contribution to the overall whole (and, in line with his intention, benefit considerably from multiple listens) but the two tracks most notably forward-looking — in regards to what may come next — are undoubtedly the mid-album one-two punch combo of “Everything” and “Satellite.”
“Satellite” may very well be the most danceable song Reznor’s arranged this side of “Closer,” and its sleek sexiness, smooth delivery and lack of profanity may potentially outrun his previous commercial success. Opening with a fantastic line (“Data trails, like fingernails, scratch across the sky”), it is easily on par with even the finest modern hip-hop productions released by Timbaland, Pharrell and Kanye.
“Everything,” on the other hand, is a different monster altogether. The most triumphant and happy song since 1989’s “Down in It,” it serves as a celebration of perseverance and growth (“Wave goodbye/Wish me well/I’ve become something else/It’s just as well”). Interestingly, the aforementioned “Satellite” and this track were the first songs Reznor conceived of during the very early stages of Hesitation Marks (the entire effort began as an addendum to a standard “greatest hits” collection he was putting together). Standing defiantly in the center of a comparatively morose collection of songs (and, when taking into consideration his entire body of work, perhaps first metaphorical gray hair in an otherwise jet black mane), it is unlike anything he has ever done before and, as a result, is simultaneously the goofiest and scariest thing he’s put forth in a long time. I love it.
The album is available in both standard format and in “audiophile” form. As explained by Reznor: “When we were working on the album, we realized the songs had a lot of dynamics. There was also a lot of low-end frequency: We made this record kind of inspired by a lot of what’s happened in hip-hop and club stuff, where there’s a lot of information happening down in the low end that you won’t hear out of your computer speakers. We [Reznor, Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder] were faced with a dilemma at the very end of mastering, which was: ‘Do we compete with everyone else? Do we want to be as loud as other acts when you’re shuffling through on iTunes? Or do we a make it just a purist thing where it’s exactly how we want it to sound?’ So we decided to master it two different ways.”
Though Hesitation Marks may only become the favorite Nine Inch Nails album of a select few (when competing with masterpieces like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile), it fills an until-now unsatisfied half decade-old void without feeling the least bit lazy or dispassionate, and though it falls just short of 2008’sThe Slip in terms of aggressive progress, it undoubtedly serves up the goods in a far better fashion than would be expected of an Oscar-winning 48-year-old married artist with two kids who is a quarter of a century into his career.
Kudos, Mr. Reznor.
For more info, visit <http://www.nin.com/>.
(Unless attributed otherwise, all photos, videos and songs © Nine Inch Nails, except “Weary Blues from Waitin’,” © Universal Music Group.)
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