Can you believe it’s been nearly 25 years since Nine Inch Nails’ debut album? Not only does that make me feel incredibly old, but it also speaks to how influential mastermind Trent Reznor’s work has become.
A pioneer of industrial rock—named for its heavy, machine-like sounds—Reznor has naturally grown out of his Nine Inch Nails project. He’s gone from playing the very first Lollapalooza to scoring David Fincher’s last two films and releasing a side project, How To Destroy Angels, with his wife Mariqueen Maandig and creative partner Atticus Ross. The last few albums from Nine Inch Nails, released in 2007 and 2008, spelled out something of a creative lull for the project.
Now, Reznor prepares for the release of the latest Nine Inch Nails album, “Hesitation Marks.” Here’s the question: with this being the first Nine Inch Nails album in over five years, can it retain the same magic that made his work in the 1990s so powerful?
Ultimately, “Hesitation Marks” doesn’t explore entirely new territory for Reznor: it still retains the ominous, synth-heavy sounds of his signature work. But that doesn’t mean it lacks originality. Nothing else sounds like Nine Inch Nails, whether it’s Reznor’s howl or the way he melds electronic and analog instruments together.
Still, it’s interesting to see Reznor move into slightly less rage-filled territory—work ranging from his first single, “Head Like a Hole,” to his controversial single, “Closer,” to his more recent, “The Hand That Feeds,” all of which relied on his angry, abrasive prism of reality, whether greed, sexuality, or politics. Here, Reznor is looking back, still with the same sense of ennui, but now with years of experience and maturity to not only build a more sophisticated worldview but also a truly haunting experience.
Even the most traditional of the tracks, album single “Came Back Haunted,” is a song about returning to your roots—albeit with some extra emotional weight. “Everything,” quite possibly the most radio-friendly track Reznor has ever put out, marks Reznor at his most optimistic, as he repeatedly shouts, “I’ve survived everything.” His signature snarl is here, but it’s bookended by verses that have a bubbliness that’s never been witnessed from so dark a musician.
But Trent Reznor is not now, nor will he ever be, a happy songwriter. Songs with titles like “All Time Low” and “Various Methods of Escape” certainly don’t suggest that. The chip on Reznor’s shoulder isn’t gone; he’s just learned to live with it for twenty-five years. Like he sings on “Various Methods of Escape,” he’s “gotta let go.” On Hesitation Marks, he’s closer to being ready to do that.
And where Reznor has thematically moved out of abrasiveness, so has much of his production moved out of the distortion heavy mixing that has characterized Nine Inch Nails for so much of its existence.
Much of Hesitation Marks is dominated by lighter synthesizers and piano; this is no coincidence, seeing as “Social Network” score collaborator Atticus Ross is involved with production. “Find My Way” uses an eerie piano riff as its backbone, building light, electronic production and menacing, industrial percussion around it. “I Would For You” is lead by low-end bass, darting into something surprisingly grandiose as the song moves into its chorus.
Hesitation Marks is an album defined by Reznor’s aging; where he was once virulently angry at the world, here he has grown more accepting of his gloom and doom. It’s a change that might have some Nine Inch Nails purists doubting the project’s future, but how much longer could Trent Reznor have been openly screaming at the world around him before it became derivative and boring?
Hesitation Marks lacks the kind of triumphant tones necessary to be called a “comeback album.” But it’s still a consistently engaging piece of work that presents Reznor as a strong creative force. Thankfully, even after a quarter of a century, Trent Reznor hasn’t lost his step.