Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Maturity has a way of softening the edge of even the fiercest musicians, and the way they deal with that fact is what separates artists with long, fruitful careers from ones that shine bright and collapse. Fortunately, Trent Reznor falls firmly in the former category. Hesitation Marks, his eighth album with Nine Inch Nails and his first since 2008’s The Slip, proves he still has something to say and is finding new ways to say it. As an unrepentant workaholic, he never sat around long—even the long gaps between his ’90s albums were mostly due to his perfectionism, making sure he got all the details right—and the only thing that’s changed about his recording habits as he’s gotten older is his prolificacy. Nine Inch Nails isn’t his only gig anymore: Sure, he nabbed an Academy Award (along with producer Atticus Ross) for his film score work, but he’s become a husband and father as well (which spawned yet another side project, How To Destroy Angels, this time with his wife). All this is a long way of saying that Reznor isn’t the same man he used to be, so it stands that Nine Inch Nails follows suit. Hesitation Marks has the same general NIN sound, of course—Reznor isn’t looking to do some sort of 180 this late in his career—but it has a different air about it. He’s skeptical, but no longer so cynical; he’s brooding, but no longer so bleak. If that takes some of the edge off of his music, so be it, since the kind of me-versus-society persona that characterized The Downward Spiral, or, hell, even Year Zero, wouldn’t wear as well on a man facing 50. But what’s important is that Reznor is still an impressive songwriter and producer, and while the songs here don’t rank with his top-tier cuts, this is still a gratifying record, enough to show he, Ross and co-producer Alan Moulder haven’t lost their collective touch. Plus, familiarity isn’t a bad thing: the clever, eerie “Copy Of A” interweaves several layers of sound to find something new within the established formula, while the first single “Came Back Haunted” seems to be NIN-by-the-numbers before it’s buoyed by a strong hook. But when the record surprises, it’s especially welcome. Foremost among those moments is the power pop rush of “Everything,” a bright, hopeful anthem that sounds downright cheerful compared to the rest of Reznor’s catalog (and promises to be one of his most polarizing songs). Yet it’s bits like the springing guitar lines and sparkling keyboards of “All Time Low” and the growling saxophone that closes out “While I’m Still here” that position Hesitation Marks as the work of an artist who isn’t quite ready to settle into a predictable pattern, even if he isn’t trying too hard to rock the boat. Like a good portion of Reznor’s work, Hesitation Marks is a bit overlong and would have benefited from some tightening up towards the end, particularly since the album is front-loaded with much of its best tracks. Still, for someone who’s been around as long as he has, it’s amazing he’s still able to create music that’s, for the most part, this inventive and relevant. Looks like Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are aging just fine.