What dulls the potency of adolescent rage the most pitilessly? Is it the pure onset of age? Is it the broadened perspective of life experience? Or maybe the burden of responsibility? How about the prestige that comes from accrued accomplishments? Any one of these things alone can probably snap most people from living inside their own heads to glumly signing away the next 30 years on a mortgage. But any one of them can just as easily ensure a dark phase elongates into a dark life. For that reason, there’s a mark of poignancy in the title of Nine Inch Nails’ new album. For what else is the entire career of Trent Reznor in the aftermath of 1994’s suicidal The Downward Spiral but one long series of “hesitation marks”? And what are hesitation marks but a tangible reminder of a very specific, very painful failure? Death invites closure and acceptable answers. Living holds the door open to questions and decay.
“Walking wounded” has been Reznor’s most reliable motif, and at eight albums deep, you would think the recrudescent Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t have any material left for another round of theme and variations. As if addressing this attitude from the outset, Hesitation Marks jumps out of the gates with “Copy of A,” a swift-paced workout that begins with a sour synth flourish a la “Heresy” before snapping into a tight industrial groove. “I’m just a copy of a copy of a copy/Everything I say has come before,” Reznor sings, his register notably deeper, as though every note now has to navigate through a series of nodes. Whether he’s addressing the expectations of his listeners or the demands of music executives (this is the band’s first album to be released by a major label since Reznor’s split with Interscope), “Copy of A” contemplates the constrictions of a conspicuous career. His first-person characterizations of passive victimhood in the past have almost always at least used threats as evidence of agency. Here Reznor’s comparatively muted tone suggests a willing capitulation, setting the mood for the rest of the album. The Nine Inch Nails of yore wore the thorned crown of angsty solipsism; on Hesitation Marks, Reznor comes to the realization, “So I’m not the only one.”
Many of his musical signifiers are still in full deployment. Reznor’s fondness for singing melodies in major keys against minor-key backing tracks (a tangy mannerism that effortlessly suggests the anguish of pubescence) hasn’t waned, nor has his affection for exaggerated dynamic contrasts. Instead of falling back on compression and distortion, he’s chosen to release this incredibly clean-sounding LP in two separate mixes: the standard issue, which is mastered for what producer Alan Moulder tagged “a more competitive level of volume,” and the “audiophiles version,” which promises “the mixes as they are without compromising the dynamics and low end.”
But in almost every way, this is the least outré effort NIN has proffered since Pretty Hate Machine. It’s focused but inquisitive, as opposed to declarative. “How did we get so high?” a disillusioned Reznor asks at the climax of “All Time Low,” not so much marveling at any current experience as he is interested in receiving a reminder from whoever has the road map. Apparently he finds a willing guide, as the acrid, lumbering funk dirge eventually disperses into a miasma of blissful, tinkling arpeggios more apropos of M83, leaving a momentarily dazzled Reznor to marvel, “stripped across the sky,” over and over again.
Perhaps because it comes encased in cover art by Russell Mills or because there’s an underlying patina of rebirth surrounding the project, many have already mined parallels to Downward Spiral from the new album. But more so than anything from Reznor’s own back catalogue, Hesitation Marks’s congregation of belatedly encroaching pre-dotage and the reflexive drive for relapse that accompanies it feels reminiscent of Prince’s The Black Album, or rather a mirror image of it wherein its creator struggles to play by the rules to appease external demons. (In contrast, Prince was so shocked by his submission to his own inner demons that he shelved the endeavor wholesale.) Even perusing the titles of Hesitation Marks—“Various Methods of Escape,” “Disappointed,” “While I’m Still Here,” “Came Back Haunted”—invokes feelings of knowing pity. No longer a “Big Man with a Gun,” Reznor’s approach is now irreversibly utilitarian.
But then comes “Everything.” Dad rock. Already as controversial as anything the Oscar-winning composer has done in well over a decade, the track neither sulks nor rages. It smirks at the foot of a backyard pool, cracking open a beer and insisting, “I survived everything/I have tried everything (everything, everything) and anything,” over a sunny, suburban punk riff. When Reznor sings, “Wave goodbye, wish me well/I’ve become something else,” you’d better believe him. Maybe there are second acts after all, no matter how much scar tissue you’ve got across your wrists.