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.
How To Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion
No matter what he does, Trent Reznor will never quite be able to escape the specter of Nine Inch Nails, his massively influential ’90s band. This isn’t to say that he necessarily wants to step out of that band’s shadow, but as many Academy Award-winning scores and Call Of Duty: Black Ops II songs he writes, reviewers like me will always come back to NIN simply because everything he’s done feels like an extension of that group. (See Thom Yorke’s solo career and my Atoms For Peace review for another example.) This isn’t meant as an insult, either. The Social Network and Girl With A Dragon Tattoo scores cultivated their own identities out of Reznor and longtime producer Atticus Ross’ signature sounds—digital dehumanization in the former, anxiety and hopelessness in the latter. Naturally, these scores leaned toward the more atmospheric and ambient sides of Reznor’s catalogue and his production met the challenge, crafting evocative soundscapes for the characters (and audiences) to wallow in. It was only a matter if time before he attempted to bridge this sort of mood music and his confrontational, song-based work.
Enter Welcome Oblivion, the first full-length record from Reznor’s sometime side project, How To Destroy Angels. Consisting of Reznor, Ross, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and artist Rob Sheridan, the group sketched out their ideas on a few EPs over the last few years, and Welcome Oblivion is their attempt to bring it all together—and the result is promising but ultimately half-baked. The issue isn’t so much the approach (elliptical, unsettling electronic dissonance meets sometimes warm, sometimes angsty female vocals) but the compositions themselves. Every track here has a few good ideas, yet these ideas are often run into the ground, not strong enough to justify the occasionally extended tracks they are shoved into. And with Reznor and Ross’ typically exacting production, there’s no feeling of spontaneity to help counteract the monotony when things get limp. Witness how the frustrated “Too late, all gone” begins to build up tension but it feels passionless, simply fizzling out instead of provoking the listener like it should. Elsewhere though, Welcome Oblivion begins to meet its potential. The sullen “Keep it together” conjures some of the creeping, crawling vibes of Reznor’s past work, while “Recursive self-improvement” manages to remains stressful and compelling through the course of its run. And on the pretty “Ice age,” Maandig (who really ends up being the album’s saving grace with her gorgeous, humane voice) lilts above a skipping acoustic riff, providing some needed contrast from the rest of the record. Again, these moments are the exceptions, though it has to be said, even at its most disposable, Welcome Oblivion doesn’t offend. But since Reznor has so much experience toying with these sounds, once the group tightens up the songwriting, there’s no reason they couldn’t produce something truly distinctive. For now though, it ain’t great, but it’s enough.