opinion by PETER TABAKIS
Of all the rock bands who reigned over the ‘90s, only Radiohead rivals Nine Inch Nails in its influence on the music kids actually listen to today. As rock, like jazz and folk before it, becomes a beloved yet commercially irrelevant niche genre, Trent Reznor’s pioneering use of electronics on his early albums still sounds remarkably fresh, thanks to the ascendency of EDM and its infiltration into pop music. But Reznor’s legacy as an electronic artist was hardly a forgone conclusion. The Downward Spiral (1994), the apex of Nine Inch Nails’ marvelous brand of machine metal music, preceded Kid A – an album that danced atop rock’s grave with such glee – by six long years. His lasting success is especially remarkable when contrasted with contemporaries such as R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins, who crashed and burned in their forays into electronic experimentation. Just a few months ago, who would have guessed that this year’s most audacious and celebrated rap album would more closely resemble Nine Inch Nails’ debut than Kanye West’s?
Post-Spiral, Trent Reznor has produced a body of work both voluminous and strikingly varied in concept. There have been bright spots here and there – mostly clustered on the snarling first half of his previous album The Slip (2008), on down to a few exceptional moments buried within the ambient vistas of his interminable double-LP The Fragile (1999). He has also found time for side dalliances, scoring a couple of David Fincher movies with collaborator Atticus Ross (their music for The Social Network earned them well-deserved Oscars) and working with his wife Mariqueen Maandig on the How to Destroy Angels project. What Reznor hasn’t yet mustered is a Nine Inch Nails album equal to the promise of Spiral – or even eight songs to match Broken, his 1992 EP.
Well, until now.
Hesitation Marks is Nine Inch Nails’ eighth and unquestionably finest release since The Downward Spiral, an album that comes tantalizingly close to the band’s peak without having to be graded on a curve. Trent Reznor, always a deceptively tuneful songwriter at heart, used to subvert the power of his melodies with ear-ripping abrasion or the breathtaking pain of his lyrics. He eschews obfuscation on Hesitation Marks and fashions his new songs from the melody up: a handful are superb, the rest just good. Even at its weakest, which means at times tedious and, like every Nine Inch Nails album before it, too long, Hesitation Marks finds Reznor bracingly reinvigorated.
When Reznor returned to the studio last year, after a four-year break from Nine Inch Nails, he only planned on recording a couple of new songs for a forthcoming greatest hits collection. Working closely with Ross and longtime producer Alan Moulder, Reznor instead created a complete album on the sly (with help from such classic-rock aces as Lindsey Buckingham, Pino Palladino and Adrian Belew). He’s said The Downward Spiral inspired Hesitation Marks and that he views it as a sort-of sequel. The album’s artwork, by Russell Mills, makes the connection at least visually explicit.
With all due respect to the artist and his intentions, Hesitation Marks’ fourteen tracks rarely recall the past, especially the experimental outbursts and tortured lyrics of Spiral. Most of Reznor’s new songs are strikingly upfront, often with danceable 4/4 beats (see the one-two knockout of “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted”), even when they’re at mid-tempo (“All Time Low” and “Various Methods of Escape”). Sobriety and parenthood have inflected his lyrics, which can still be foreboding, but are usually ruminative and searching as on the sighing “Find My Way” (“I’m just trying to find my way/ Oh dear lord hear my prayer”). Though Hesitation Marks loses momentum and focus after the slinky “Satellite,” its final batch of songs consistently return to top form, and always during their choruses.
On Hesitation Marks’ polarizing gem “Everything,” one of the first songs Trent Reznor wrote for the album, he sings of survival, emancipation, and rebirth atop stacked vocals and guitars: “Wave goodbye/ Wish me well/ I’ve become something else.” The song is jarringly bright, a Nine Inch Nails power-pop anthem. Tellingly, no other track delivers such head-spinning shock. Perhaps it was an early aberration. Maybe Reznor simply lost some nerve. Oh well. If I lament what could have been, it’s only because Hesitation Marks proves greatness remains within Trent Reznor’s grasp. [B]