Artist: Nine Inch Nails
CD Title: Hesitation Marks
Genre: Industrial, Rock
Released: September 3rd, 2013
Simultaneously one of the most iconic and iconoclastic figures in industrial music, Trent Reznor’s forthcoming release of Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ first studio album in five years sent shockwaves through the dark music scene.
The usual questions arose. “Does Reznor have it anymore?’ ‘Is this going to be another The Slip/With Teeth/Ghosts I-IV/Year Zero?” “Is ‘Came Back Haunted’ representative of the album as a whole? Because it sucks.”
The backlash, of course, could have been predicted by anyone with a passive interest in the industrial scene. A band’s first album is never eclipsed by their second. Or their third. Or their ninth, if you count proper studio albums, or twelfth, depending on how you rate Ghosts I-IV; and that’s a long way down the escalation chain. Everyone’s a sellout, everyone forgets what got them to the top, everyone tries new stuff that ultimately sucks and if they would just get back to the real music they made in 1998 then God that would be awesome.
Listeners always a throwback to the first time they experienced an artist’s work. I recall that my first exposure to Metallica came from seeing their music video for “Nothing Else Matters”, and between that and “The Unforgiven”, at the ripe old age of 13 I had become absolutely convinced that Hetfield should have taken a hard swing into writing lighter stuff with proper singing and all. That misconception did not last too long thanks to the vaguely subversive influence of high-volume thrash metal in Kill ‘em All through …And Justice For All, but for a while I was quite certain of that opinion being immutable fact. The first exposure I had to Jesus Christ Superstar outside of a community theatre was the 2006 revical soundtrack, and Zubin Varla’s interpretation of Judas became authoritative to me; poor Carl Anderson seemed out of place and lacking in energy when I tracked down the movie version some months later. And so on.
Everyone wants to listen to more of what brought them to the table in the first place, and the preemptive criticism of Hesitation Marks should come as no surprise. The early release of “Came Back Haunted” seemed to confirm for many their deep-seated fears about Nine Inch Nails; Reznor had gone off the deep end with the poppy stuff, and the rest of the album surely couldn’t hang with the original dark trinity of the Nine Inch Nails catalogue. Jaded club patrons in black goggles and fake dreads would certainly dismiss it with a roll their eyes and complain about the terrible new music in the scene, as they always did, and then sit idly on the sidelines nursing their absinthe while “Military Fashion Show” played for the thirty-seventh time this week. And life would go on as it always had, a great circle of unbroken pathos, an ouroboros of self-consumption.
There’s only one problem with that early assessment—Hesitation Marks is good.
It’s a really good album, and you need to listen to it.
I’d had my trepidation, no doubt. One of the negative points of the album I’ll concede to right out of the gate was the song “Everything”, which I had luridly alluded on my Facebook to as the #1 surf rock song of the year. It’s goofy, forward, musically unhinged and far too aggressive for its own good. After a generally positive but restrained reception I’d given “Came Back Haunted”, the early release of “Everything” felt like a Nelson-from-the-Simpsons ‘Haw Haw’ for daring to believe that Hesitation Marks was worth a minute beyond a Soundcloud clickthrough once in awhile. I felt silly.
I’d been wrong before on predicting my reviews, however, and when the opportunity came up to review the album I at least knew that there would be at least one bright point to focus on. “Came Back Haunted”, after all, is a decently catchy pop song. It’s relatively complex for a dance floor track, in fact, with pretty thick musical layering and progression that keeps the song alive and fresh for well over 5 minutes. If nothing else, I could focus on those positives, keep my criticism relatively muted and turn in a reasonable and fair review without having to dive into the muck.
The defensive posture proved unnecessary. Despite a few odd missteps (the remixes are particularly egregious offenders, where the dissonance of different musical and vocal stylings proved a bit too much to stomach), Hesitation Marks came through time and time again with solid, musically diverse tracks. “Copy of A”’s dissonant arpeggio sequence, set off-time against a relatively simple percussion rhythm, makes for nice, energetic tension throughout the song. The transition into the higher-pitched bridge is nice as well, and the song ultimately wraps up in time before it gets old. “Find My Way” offers a quality backbeat under Renzor’s trademark caterwauling, and the piano and synths are both expertly set underneath the melody. “All Time Low” carries a bumping and catchy bass line, and guitar work reminiscent of the aforementioned Jesus Christ Superstar, to shore up somewhat weak lyrics, and the result is still quite listenable.
“Disappointed” is a rather minimalist song with a familiar sounding arpeggio in the background—not sure what it’s reminding me of—and the muted electric guitars build a rising musical tension quite capably throughout the song. Additionally, here are some words that I hadn’t expected to write: the musical interlude at 3:40 is positively beautiful, to the point where it’s almost a disappointment when Reznor cuts in and begins singing again.
"Satellite” proved to be one of the album’s weaker entries, with an unengaging chorus weighing down an otherwise decently arranged song. “Various Methods of Escape” carries a interesting backbeat that gives plenty of space to the vocals and guitars while remaining musically relevant, and it’s a successful combination. “I Would For You” seems to get bogged down by itself until an abrupt shift to the chorus makes the total package make sense. “In Two”, an interesting synth sequence with complex timing leads into a forcible and energetic rhythm for verse and chorus both. The outset of “While I’m Still Here” reminds me of the 8-bit NES area, but the song initially proves a little dull on first listen. I suspect this one will grow on a listener, however; there’s plenty of attention to detail here and a few musical layers aren’t immediately apparent on first listen.
As for myself, I’d long lost a little faith in the Nine Inch Nails juggernaut. I’d not been engaged by Ghosts I-IV, The Slip proved relatively forgettable for me, and With Teeth had bitterly disappointed. I had prepared myself for further disappointment before writing this review, and had expected to have to gloss over uncomfortable realizations while boldly admitting the rather saccharine favor I found in songs like “Came Back Haunted”. It proved unnecessary.
Hesitation Marks is unequivocally one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best albums Nine Inch Nails has ever put together. This is real Nine Inch Nails, as real as it gets. Reznor shows up with real musical chops here on a beautiful, lushly produced album, and the result is nothing short of praiseworthy.
Take a listen: Nine Inch Nails: Copy of A
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