Album Review: Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

This year, we've seen some of the most expensive records in the business to date come out to rave reviews and ravenous sales. In each of these cases, the artists have reached out in new directions of production to rediscover a feeling or a place that they weren't getting any closer to with business as usual. So naturally, with success comes more opportunity to reach even higher towards the stars, and these privileged few have been enabled to pursue their dreams of startling new levels of spread with infinite budgetary allowances. But there's one thing that no production budget will ever buy you: perspective. As artists get older, the existential questions of relevance and acceptance creep into the brain, and some may be tempted to look back at the glory days in an attempt to recreate a place and a time verbatim. As many of us listeners know, this rarely goes well. But looking to the past not a bad thing - it just depends on intention.

For people like Trent Reznor, looking to the past may not be an easy deed. Nine Inch Nails is a name known far and wide, but not for uplifting messages or love songs you are looking to spin at your wedding. It's a name that strikes fear into the hearts of the squeamish. It's the name perhaps most famous for The Downward Spiral, one of the most controversial records of the alternative decade. It's controversial for damned good reasons too - the concept album follows a nihilistic main character down a calamitous path ending in the taking of his own life. The story of the album was, in many ways, the embodiment of Reznor’s nightmares about the person he was becoming in the wake of simultaneous artistic success and personal failure. Drug usage and heavy alcoholism led Reznor down a dark (albeit financially profitable) path through the 90s until he sought help through rehab (which served as the source material for most of 2005’s With Teeth).

Now, twelve years clean, happily married, and a father of two, Reznor is looking back at those darker days with a sense of stability. With this year’s masterful return, Hesitation Marks, he’s not looking to rewrite history or put another nail in the coffin of his former self – both of those options would just lead to another version of the truth. Rather, Reznor is returning perhaps most of all to show us what he’s gained and to share newfound clarity with his listeners. Through a massive, operatic story with a murderously good soundtrack, Trent takes us back down the spiral for the sole purpose of circling back up.

“You’d think by now you’d figure out that nothing’s going to change… and I am part of the reason”. This line from “Disappointed” could be a one sentence plot summary for Hesitation Marks. Here, on the sixth track in, Reznor deals with the fame, glory, and the ultimate high of rock and roll stardom, and how all of it still can’t seem to fill the insatiable vacuum of human malcontent. “What did you expect?” he screams, but just who is he talking to? If you’ve been following along at all, Trent has made some pretty clear cut parallels with the new album to his 1994 opus The Downward Spiral. The Russell Mills cover art, the whimpering lowercase font, the return of Adrian Belew to the production team for some freak-out guitar sounds (his first time back since 1999's The Fragile) – all of this is happening again for the first time in almost 20 years. But Trent isn’t trying to get the band back together for one last ride around the block. As he’s specified in interviews and statements leading up to the album’s release, Hesitation Marks is a journey back to the days of old, not to rediscover what made The Downward Spiral such a widely acclaimed piece of work, or to rekindle an old spark that many fans have assumed is long dead, but to reflect on the person that Reznor was when making that record.

Now, depending on your prior Nine Inch Nails knowledge, this may or may not seem unbelievably pretentious. But judging by the fact that Trent can’t stop working to save his life (in the absence of Nine Inch Nails, he recorded and released two EPs and an LP with his other band How To Destroy Angels and scored two films directed by David Fincher), writing an album about it may be the best closure Reznor can get. Instead of just meandering through hazy memories and saying over and over again “this is who I was and this is who I am now”, with Hesitation Marks, Trent does something much more interesting. In his typical concept album/rock opera style, Trent is going back to 1994 as a ghost and haunting his past self as both a source of rebuke and a source of guidance. To make things even more interesting, he is taking his old self on a surreal odyssey not unlike the one that Trent took us on with The Downward Spiral. The parallels between the two and the person that Trent brings to light in the wake of the destruction and the reconstruction combine to give us one of the most rewarding musical experiences Trent has thrown at us yet.

Let’s begin with the exposition. In “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” (two tracks that love showing off Reznor’s heavy New Order influence), we meet one man with two distinct voices. “Copy of A” shows us an artist at the top of his game, plagued by the workings of the industry, being told what to do and how to do it. He earnestly wants to create something and do some good, but the walls around him are saying “no”. So, due to lack of cooperating, “they put something inside of me”. On “Came Back Haunted”, the house of mirrors dissolves into cold reality. If the industry can’t convince him to comply on his own terms, they will intervene. Things are going downhill in a hurry for our hero. On “Find My Way”, he sincerely cries out for mercy and guidance. “Lord I pray my soul to take”, he sings, begging for a path through the muck and the mire, all before diving into the thickest pool on “All Time Low”.

Now, for a minute, let’s remember how The Downward Spiral begins: a man is confronted with opportunity at a mortal cost with “Mr. Self Destruct”, that he doubts until the cost is smothered by apathy on “Piggy”. Then, he follows a path of rejecting all institutions through “Heresy” and “March of the Pigs” before letting this new power of seeming (yet self-destructive) invincibility become him on “Closer”. See where he’s going with this yet?

“All Time Low” throws a lot of parallels at “Closer”. It’s the 5th track of 14, it’s got a funky 70s vibe, it’s danceable, and it’s a tribute to self-destruction at the cost of the moment. But where the main character of The Downward Spiral finds a final moment of triumph on “Closer” because starting his downhill journey towards misery and ruin, we see Trent’s character on Hesitation Marks truly reaching an all time low. The muse version of Trent then comes in on “Disappointed” to let our hero know that all of this self-destruction is going to get him absolutely nowhere, because nothing is going to change and fame and power do nothing to make you happy. Sure, “Disappointed” is angst-ridden and dramatic – in fact, it’s a total downer. But it’s all for good reason. Here, Trent gives our hero – in so many ways, himself 20 years younger – a verbal lashing before offering a hand to pull him out of the hole he’s found himself in and set him on the path to redemption.

The mood changes instantaneously on “Everything”. The brooding electronic bleeps on “All Time Low” and “Disappointed”, both tarnished with direct musical ties to The Downward Spiral, are replaced by an upbeat new wave pop song. “I survived everything – I have tried everything and anything,” Trent cries out autobiographically. “Wave goodbye”, he sings, echoing the name of Nine Inch Nails’ “final” tour back in 2008-2009, “wish me well. I’ve become something else”. With the worst behind him, our hero realizes that with a changed heart, there is everything to gain – a perspective Reznor has only come to live into in these past few years. “The walls begin to dissolve away,” he screams with fervor. The path is set – now all Virgil Trent and his Dante have to do is walk the line out of the Inferno.

The politically charged “Satellite” then reminds us that the world is not perfect and it’s a dark, foreboding place even when you aren’t creating problems for yourself. So while Trent has inspired some hope in our main character, all is not fixed. There is still plenty of climbing upwards to do, and plenty of attempts at escape to be made, both of which “Various Methods of Escape” (complete with that totally awesome The Fragile-era drum break) and “Running” tackle quite well. The journey is arduous, and our hero loses faith, but regains motivation in the form of love on “I Would For You”. “See, I keep lying to myself, don’t know what else there is to do. If I could be somebody else… well, I think I could for you”. Yes, pain is real and dealing with fame and people hanging on your every word just to skewer you against a wall completely sucks, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to maintain your humanity. “All this has happened all before, and this will happen all again, and I only have myself to blame”, he sings, knowing full well what the journey holds up ahead, but something about this song tells me that Trent has figured out that it’s worth it, both for those you love and for yourself.

Trent isn’t one to end things on a low note, so he goes out in glorious fashion with the two-punch knockout of “In Two” and “While I’m Still Here”. On “In Two” it feels like our main character is looking out over a vast horizon and picking up sword and shield to prep for a fight. There’s a storm on the horizon, and he knows full well that there will be pain, but he’s ready to fight. I want to do something that matters. It’s a phrase we heard Trent snarl on The Downward Spiral’s “I Do Not Want This”. But there, it seems like a desperate and superficial cry for help before a willing fall into darkness. Here, on Hesitation Marks, Trent looks back at the same body of data he was staring at in 1994 and comes to a vastly different conclusion. “In Two” explodes forward with a ferocity we haven’t heard with 100% sincerity from Reznor in years. It also helps that the track might remind long time fans of the complex throw down of Pretty Hate Machine cut “Kinda I Want To”. But instead of making a statement with volume and force, the song abruptly ends mid-bar into the quiet power of “While I’m Still Here”.

On this final tune, I daresay Trent gives us the most inspiration piece of art he’s ever put forward. “Ticking, time is running out” he whispers in between every line, each time getting quieter and quieter, as if the anxiety that has chased him for so long is fading into the distance. “Yesterday, I found out the world was ending”. Perhaps the only thing he needed all along was to stop counting the seconds slipping by and living the days left on the calendar. “A little more every day falls apart and slips away, and I don’t mind, I’m okay. Nothing ever stays the same. While we can remember when – always will, even then – stay with me, hold me near while I’m still here”. As the curtain falls on the classic Nine Inch Nails synth chorus, a saxophone bursts in and plays an uncharacteristically funky duet with the bass guitar. It’s almost as if Reznor is letting a smile and a sigh of relief shine through for the first time in his whole career (it’s also the most Bowie thing he’s done since actually working with him in the mid-90s). But then, of course, the album ends with the noisey, anxiety-inducing outro of “Black Noise”. It is a Nine Inch Nails record after all.

At shows in the future, Reznor will probably continue to encore with “Hurt”, the coda to The Downward Spiral that sees 1994 Trent reflecting on his own life. “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel,” he moans, feeling only a shell of a man holding a kingdom of dirt and mud. It’s a song that fans (including Johnny Cash) have resonated with for years, and even Reznor himself says that the song continues to give him a sense of perspective on his life and career. But I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if in this second half of his life, “While I’m Still Here” became his last words and wave goodbye. After “If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way” has faded and the cheers subside, what if it were followed up with “Ticking, time is running out”? Reznor has kept himself, just like he wanted to do 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s trying to relive any glory days of worldwide appeal accompanied by suffering. Reznor has figured out what’s important to him, and he stares out at the horizon of this next chapter with a hopefulness that only time and grace can offer, and with a loving heart, he has chosen to share that hope with us in the form of Hesitation Marks.

Hesitation Marks is out next Tuesday, September 3, through Columbia Records on CD, vinyl, and digitally with two different mastering versions (nerd!). If you are one lucky bastard, you bought tickets to go see Nine Inch Nails at the Key Arena on November 22, with opener Explosions in the Sky. But if you didn’t, best of luck to you because it is completely sold out! Hesitation Marks is now streaming in full on iTunes.

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