‘Hesitation Marks’ brings new sound from Nine Inch Nails

September 6, 2013

“Hesitation Marks,” Nine Inch Nails’ first album since 2008’s “The Slip,” is nothing less than a triumphant return from one of modern rock’s great innovators. Fans have come to believe that they had seen the last of Nine Inch Nails, known for their unique brand of industrial rock that juxtaposes electronic and organic sounds, following 2009’s Wave Goodbye Tour. After going on an indefinite hiatus in 2009, the band’s founder and only official member, Trent Reznor, kept busy with Oscar-winning movie scores, such as “The Social Network,” in 2010 and with his other band, How to Destroy Angels.

Reznor had indicated that he wouldn’t return to Nine Inch Nails until he could bring something musically and lyrically fresh to the concept and take the band in a direction far removed from any of its previous eight studio albums. Accordingly, “Hesitation Marks” sounds astonishingly different from any of his past work but still manages to retain some of their signature musical trademarks.

Machines drone, synthesizers glitch and guitars wail over crunchy electronic drum beats, flawlessly merging noise and dissonance with catchy hooks and melodious vocals. The incredible variety of musical stylings is all the more impressive when you consider that Reznor wrote and performed almost the entire album by himself with minimal guest contributions.

Instrumentation varies from song to song but generally maintains minimalist qualities compared to Reznor’s usual wall-of-sound production style, complementing rather than burying his contemplative vocal delivery. In a musical catalog in which whispers tend to lead to screams, vocals in “Hesitation Marks” are unexpectedly quiet, allowing for a more nuanced and subtle lyrical delivery while still retaining an exceptional emotional punch. Although Reznor indicated that the album would be a spiritual successor to the 1994 industrial metal masterpiece, “The Downward Spiral,” the end result is something quite different: It is a culmination of the many sounds Reznor has experimented with throughout his long and diverse career.

The first half of the album is the most accessible, opening with an introductory instrumental number, “The Eater of Dreams,” before segueing into the danceable, energetic, “Copy of A” and the lead single, “Came Back Haunted.” The opening tracks adhere most closely to the tenets of mainstream rock while also distancing themselves sonically, a strategy that becomes more apparent as the divisions increase with each song in the album.

From the outset, “Hesitation Marks” deftly handles the heavy themes of self-exploration and bringing oneself back from the brink without ever sounding insincere or overly angsty. Drawing on his journey from depressed, self-loathing drug addict to sober and successful father, Reznor meditates on the ghosts of his past and questions his own relevance in, “Find My Way,” expertly balancing vulnerability and self–awareness in his lyrics. One of the best songs on the record, “All Time Low,” combines an intensely danceable drumbeat with eerie vocals that alternate between incredibly high falsetto and bass registers. Reznor continues to subvert listeners’ expectations with the surprisingly upbeat pop-rock song, “Everything,” proclaiming, “I am whole/I am free,” despite being haunted by his past demons.

The album takes a darker turn in its second half, led by the paranoia-inducing standout “Satellite,” which couples ethereal whispering with noisy electronic distortion and a pulsating bass line. “Various Methods of Escape” broods over the process of letting go, dialing down the dynamics and focusing more on creating a melancholy sonic atmosphere with more organic instrumentation and less reliance on electronics.

By contrast, “Running” explores the darker half of letting go, running away from the past rather than recognizing mistakes and moving on. Fittingly, “Running” ratchets up the tension with dissonant guitars and scratching sound effects under Reznor’s tired acknowledgment, “I’m running out of places I can hide from this.” Reznor’s recognition of “lying to myself” combined with a symbolic transformation occurs in “I Would For You,” which is a quiet rock ballad that differentiates itself with New Wave-esque synths before segueing into the funky “In Two,” the most overtly aggressive and instrumentally-dense song on the album. The penultimate track, “While I’m Still Here” proceeds back to the opposite extreme, stripping the instrumentation down to only percussion. Even the non-percussive instruments such as the saxophone are played in a percussive fashion before “While I’m Still Here” slips into the instrumental closer “Black Noise.”

“Hesitation Marks” is not, by any means, an album that can be fully appreciated on the first listen. It is not merely a collection of songs but is also an atmospheric work of music in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even though each individual song on the album is excellent in its own right. The overarching lyrical themes are far more mature and nuanced than in any of Nine Inch Nails’ previous music, and the depth and brilliance of instrumentation provide a unique listening experience each time.

The album is challenging but accessible: musically minimalist, while maintaining complexity and lyrically powerful yet vulnerable.

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