I once considered Trent Reznor to be the defining artist of the 90′s. Unfortunately, many disagree, and Kurt Cobain’s death embattles my argument pretty heavily. But Reznor seems to be in a constant state of remaining relevant and sustaining the impression that he could not care less. And with that he has built a notable army of High Schooler’s who grew up with Nine Inch Nails and got older respecting Trent (Of course, these same fans made bands that attempted to encapsulate what Reznor did already and far better). But there is always that angular angst and immaturity that arises from the lyrics, as if he stole poetry written by a freshman during his latest spinning of the latest Marilyn Manson or The Cure album. It is irony, but it is the kind that has a bit of a facade.
So Reznor, gracefully aging into his 40′s, put NIN aside and embraced soundtracks to Oscar-winning films and wheedling with Kid-A inspired electronic albums. But his return in the form of Hesitation Marks seems a bit premature. Reznor has been notoriously active in the years since the last NIN release, The Slip, and the continuation of the moniker is obviously welcomed, but perhaps a bit sooner than most fans even expected (Nine Inch Nails has been known to go on five year breaks between albums).
With all that said, Hesitation Marks is beautiful. It is engrossing and trepid and drowning in tense manifestations of passive-aggressive intensity and danceable backbeats. Igniting the entire record is a sense of accomplishment, an artist finding rooting in his later years and delivering what is easily one of the most invigorating albums of his career.
But he accomplishes all this with a pastoral calmness. This record is not overt, blunt, hard-hitting and bombastic. It manages an underlying tenseness. If Downward Spiral was a bludgeon to the face, Hesitation Marks is the reflective understanding of what just happened as one slips into unconsciousness.
Came Back Haunted perhaps sums things up clearly. It is somber and rhythmic. It never derails into outward aggression and anger. All the tension, all the pain is just on the brink of outright exploding. It is Reznor toying with the idea of aggression by making a record so dense and textural but never outright coming out and unleashing the metal roots he built his career on.
Satellite runs with a soft-mannered backbeat, and as the song progresses, Reznor adds another subtle element to it (a chime, a haunting echo). But the song never climaxes. It never announces its presence. Reznor in the mid-90′s would have blown his load four times over. Here, he just reflects and sits on the music, letting them organically play out as if the entire process is as natural as resting.
Of course, that lastly leads us into the mesmerizing and eclectic production here. Reznor is not a very good vocalist, traditionally. One can’t help but wonder what this album would sound like as an instrumental (it would certainly pack more of a punch than the Ghosts set). There are elements of post-dubstep in tracks like Various Methods of Escape. Electronic minimalism crops up in Find My Way, and traditional sort of dance music arises in Copy of A. It is primed for a remix, that’s for sure. All Time Low is the perfect throwback to classically-inspired goth.
Hesitation Marks is dense and enigmatic, channeling a Reznor that has long been forming but has let to come forward with such a statement. Later career Reznor was him experimenting with the music, playing with the type of release and the emotions present. It was him finding that producers edge. Hesitation Marks is the perfect culmination of Reznor’s 90′s prime and his later day maturity. It is only appropriate that Reznor pursued the art designer of The Downward Spiral to design this record. If Downward Spiral was angst, frustration, darkness and uncoiling sadness, Hesitation Marks is the tense aftermath of realizing that life is rarely ever that all-defining, encompassing, and dark. Tranquility can be found in letting go. The beautiful, almost heavenly arrangements of All Time Low seem to reflect this, as Reznor’s distant voice slowly fades away into…