Nine Inch Nails' newest album in five years, Hesitation Marks (currently streaming via iTunes, available for purchase on Sept. 3rd), opens with a brief instrumental track titled "The Eater of Dreams," and though the two sound nothing alike you may find yourself reminded of "Pinion," the throbbing, vicious little interlude that kicks off 1992's Broken EP. One type of NIN fan will note the similarity and think, "Hey, cool, a callback, right upfront!", while another will think, "Oh, great. A callback. Right upfront."
If we know anything about Nine Inch Nails frontman (and Oscar-winning composer) Trent Reznor at this point, it's that he's generally three steps ahead of everyone else. And so, it comes as no surprise that Hesitation Marks' "Pinion"-like preamble is immediately followed by "Copy of A," wherein Reznor heads potential critics off at the pass: the first lines sung on the album are, "I'm just a copy of a copy of a copy/Everything I've said has come before" (see below). Turns out that there's good reason to lead with that sentiment, as Hesitation Marks contains a number of moments during its 62-minute run time that will have longtime NIN fans looking back across Reznor's ~25 year career.
In these moments, I always found myself looking back fondly; how you'll feel about this brand of fan service is anyone's guess. The great news is, Hestitation Marks isn't only interested in retreading old ground. This is Reznor looking at his present and future, the callbacks coming across as easter eggs for fans rather than eyeroll-causing redundancies.
And what a present and future Reznor has, eh? At almost 50 years of age, he's been sober for a number of years now, is married, has two kids and an award-winning run at film score composition under his belt. He's proven himself to be infinitely more tech-savvy than any of his contemporaries, and he seems more grounded and good-humored than he's ever been before. If you're a fan of the guy, then you probably feel that odd sort of pride that comes with seeing a celebrity you admire doing really, really well in life. In a way, it's great.
In another way, it's also troubling. Like the saying about how "the worst thing that can happen to a comedian is falling in love," it's both fair and reasonable to wonder if Reznor's healthy, productive, apparently happy second act might be damaging to the very existence of Nine Inch Nails. This is a man who's spent most of his discography documenting a lifelong battle with the idea of "control," of being stymied again and again by life/love/God/fate/what-have-you in his every attempt to find peace. If he is feeling content these days (and by all accounts, Reznor really is happier than we've ever known him to be), what effect might that have on Nine Inch Nails' latest? Yes, this is all very much stating the obvious, but again, it seems a perfectly fair thing to be concerned about, particularly if a lot of what you've always loved about Reznor's music is his "nothing can stop me now/'cause I don't care anymore" ethos. What would a Nine Inch Nails record be without it?
Well, now we know. A few days ago, Hesitation Marks popped up online, streaming on iTunes for all to hear a good week before its actual release date and with Reznor cheekily noting on Twitter: "sorry it's US only, but everyone else, you know what to do. be resourceful" (oh, Trent, you incorrigible, label-loathing scamp, you). By then I'd already heard the album's first two singles, "Came Back Haunted" (the most obvious single-ready cut on the album) and "Copy of A" (excellent), and so, with everything I've said above on my mind, I was very curious to know how the rest of the album would play.
The easy answer is, it plays just like a lot of NIN records do upon first listen: it's a little jarring, sometimes confusing, and only occasionally thrilling. Reznor almost seems to construct albums this way on purpose, knowing full well that each subsequent listen will reveal a little more, come across as a little less discombobulating. Before ya know it, you find yourself picking out two or three favorite songs in addition to the singles you've already decided to get in bed with, and a few listens after that, you're trying to figure out what hyperbolic phrase best suits your feelings about this new batch of NIN songs. I've come to expect this by now, so I wouldn't say that Hesitation Marks is as jarring as, say, With Teeth was the first time around. But it's certainly different (if you're the type that favors comparisons, I'd call it the lovechild of The Fragile and With Teeth).
For me, the absolutely highlight of the album is "All Time Low" (see below), a slinky, sexy, ominous track that calls to mind a less sexually violent "Closer" (it's honest-to-god funky in places), but it's closely rivaled by "I Would For You" (the lone track that seems like it could've been at home on Year Zero). Neither of these songs is probably what you're expecting, but again: isn't that part of the fun of being a Reznor fan? Of being dumbfounded the first time you heard "Only" or "Lights in The Sky"? You'll have a similar moment here when the horns kick in on "While I'm Still Here," or when "Everything" suddenly starts sounding a lot - and I mean a lot - like a Cure song.
If you're looking for vintage NIN monkeyshines, there's enough of that to go around, as well, as in "Came Back Haunted" feels like it's going to be mindblowing live (perhaps paired up with "Hand That Feeds" or "Discipline"?). Reznor might be singing a little less aggressively on this album and the lyrical imagery may not be as mechanical or violent as it's been in the past, but it's clear that happiness and success have not ruined Reznor's interest in creating a dread-soaked atmosphere. And besides, when Hesitation Marks does decide to twist the "Rock" knob, the happily-married, protein-shake slamming, 48-year old father of two Trent Reznor proves to have an enduring talent.
After a listen or four, this album has left me feeling deeply satisfied. My lone concern: looking over the setlists NIN has been performing in the lead-up to its Fall tour, it appears that a few of Hesitation Marks' highlights are being left by the wayside. Here's hoping that the reaction to the album is strong enough to convince Team Nine Inch Nails to add a few more cuts to their already impressive batting order (I really, really want to hear "All Time Low" live).