Since Trent Reznor shelved Nine Inch Nails in 2009, the acclaimed songwriter, composer, singer, screamer, and weightlifter appeared to have realized something about his musical past that some had long known, and others might learn from his resurrection of Nine Inch Nails on Hesitation Marks: angst is a young person’s game.
At 48 now, and 44 when NIN played a series of super-sold-out small venue shows in Los Angeles to conclude the Wave Goodbye Tour, Reznor’s departure from black-cloaked melodrama was beyond logical; it was necessary. The year of Nine Inch Nails’ shelving saw Reznor marry Mariqueen Maandig and begin How to Destroy Angels, a collaboration between the newlyweds and Atticus Ross. Ross and Reznor had been playing well together since the NIN album With Teeth in 2005 and had proven to be the longest and most fruitful collaboration that Reznor has undertaken in his career. The next year, the two would score David Fincher’s The Social Network and win Oscars.
So when the somewhat expected return of Nine Inch Nails was announced right as How to Destroy Angels was set to make their live debut, beyond the initial excitement about the possibility of a NIN tour, something seemed off. The trajectory of Reznor’s career arc shifted, like a plane forced to decide whether to fly around a storm, return home, or just buckle up and go straight through it.
Even the title of the collection, Hesitation Marks, speaks of a reluctance to go all the way from Nine Inch Nails and into what is next. The result of that trepidation is another chance to relive angsty youth. There is the chance that another generation could find appeal in the music of Reznor, but if the attendance of their sets at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands is indicative of their appeal, Nine Inch Nails is not resonating with teenagers as in the ’90s, or when Reznor reclaimed that market with “The Hand That Feeds” and “Only” in the 2000s.
It’s not surprising that this new album works best when it doesn’t attempt to recapture previous heights, but instead manages to find a new path and expand what we’ve heard from NIN previously. It’s hard to say that “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” are doing something “new,” especially considering the former is using a line picked up from one of Reznor’s homeys, David Fincher, and his 1999 classic Fight Club. But, these radio-ready singles distinguish themselves by taking the twitchy, nervous electronic bleeps popular in some of today’s most progressive music and removing the scuttling nature, making the tension more danceable and direct (play The Knife’s album this year and notice the rhythms on their uptempo jams, and you’ll realize they are not too different from these tracks). Working in a very contemporary color palette and letting tension build, all without the need for huge releases or sweeping choruses, is what you’d hope for from a man pushing 50.
The other end of the spectrum isn’t elegant. While plenty has been said about “Everything” and the cruel joke the song comes off as, “All Time Low” commits greater sins, following the decent Fragile-throwback “Find My Way” with the Pretty Hate Machine-recalling head-scratcher. With production that evokes concern that Reznor might return to his “Down In It” crap-rap attempts, he instead sings rhyme-heavy, lowest common denominator words that your 14-year-old cousin could have written in the margins of his geometry textbook. Verse two: “Hey/ Everything is not okay/ We lost too much along the way/ The passengers are out today/ It looks as though they are here to stay/ This paranoia turns to fear/ There’s two words whispering in your ear/ Pretending that I know you hear/ ‘Cause how the fuck did I end up here.” Not that Reznor always came off well in lyrical analysis, but gloomy adolescent nonsense loses its excusability the further you get away from adolescence.
Beyond the words, difficulties exist musically as well. “Satellite” aims for the tension built early in the album, but lacks both an interesting concept to draw in the listener and, even at its tightest peak, goes nowhere, like a tour guide getting lost on his first day. “Various Methods of Escape” begins to feel like an explanation for the disc, lines like “history repeats itself” and “I’ve got nowhere to go” too close to home. The irony is that this song features the album’s most expansive and gutsy moment, creating a sonic rogue wave that jars and revitalizes the listener.
The album should end at that point, but it slugs on for four more unnecessary songs. If somehow the remix of “While I’m Still Here” by (Genesis) Breyer P-Orridge made it on the album proper and not as a bonus track, it would probably be the best song on Hesitation Marks, with call and response vocals, subtle brass inflections, a stunning moment of a guitar mirroring Reznor’s vocals, and an all-around affecting vibe of degeneration and doom.
It’s telling that the stems in other hands make more sense than Reznor’s own work, because the darkness of youth in 2013 is distinct from the youth that “March of the Pigs” electrified, and it is something that seems like it should have been painfully obvious to Reznor ahead of this album. And, by playing both to nostalgic sensibilities and trying to literally occupy the same territory he once did, Hesitation Marks is only welcome in that it puts Nine Inch Nails on tour. But, for the album itself, the good ideas seem to have been wasted on trying to revive something that killed itself years ago.
Essential Tracks: “Copy of A”, “Came Back Haunted”