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Looking back now on Nine Inch Nails’ ’90s heyday it’s apparent that we didn’t know what we had. Back then, the knock on Reznor was that he was taking the sputtering, clanking industrial music of Chicago’s Wax Trax scene and dumbing it down, making it fit for pop consumption. And even those of us who loved Reznor bought into that narrative from time to time, since it was the ’90s and worry about rock-star authenticity was just what you did. That whole idea, of course, ignores all the hordes of wallet-chained goobers (Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward) who were attempting to dumb down Reznor’s sound for pop consumption and who turned out to be nowhere near as good at it. And it gets what Reznor was doing wrong, though you can see why. Reznor’s voice was (and is) a pitch-perfect middle-school tantrum-whine, and its echoes reverberate in tantrum-whiners from Chester Bennington to Conor Oberst. But listening to Pretty Hate Machine, it’s evident that Reznor was a great synthpop songwriter who was drawn to darker sounds and themes, not a lightweight industrial guy. And as he progressed, he kept adding new sounds to his arsenal: Blitzkrieg metal bombast, mid-period Depeche Mode throb, ambient clings and whirrs, Bowie/Eno wandering-in-the-darkness moanscapes. He had the songcraft and the studio expertise to pull all this together, and he put it all in service of a cohesive songwriting persona, one that expressed desire and revulsion and need like nobody else. He was something. And on his new Hesitation Marks, that old self comes through with a shocking clarity. Hesitation Marks is not The Downward Spiral, but it’s closer than anyone had the right to expect.

The big difference between the old Reznor and the current one is that the need isn’t there anymore. This makes sense. It shouldn’t be there. Reznor is two decades older. He’s sober. He’s married with kids. He’s an Oscar winner. He’s a few years removed from the eminently sensible decision to leave the road, and now that he’s back to performing, he’s doing everything he can to put his own sensibilities into a touring arena/festival act, Radiohead-style. He opens “Everything,” the most immediately catchy song on Hesitation Marks, by crooning, “I surviiiiiiiived everything,” and even if he’s gloating, he’s not wrong.

Around the time he started releasing albums for free online, he eased into a friendly elder-statesman role in a way that no other rock star from the early alt-rock boom period has pulled off. Everyone else — the ones who are still alive, anyway — has spent their time retreating to happy cult-status (Vedder) or thrashing around desperately for relevance (Cornell, Love) or done some strange combination of the two (Corgan). Reznor, by contrast, has been sitting back and watching his ideas and innovations slowly spread out and take hold, his influence and esteem grow. And he’s done this while adapting a jocular-uncle perspective that’s miles removed from the teeth-gnashing doom-wraith he once seemed to be. He seems happy, and that’s great. The tradeoff there, though, is that he’s no longer writing songs like “Hurt” or “Something I Can Never Have,” bottomlessly cathartic things that become avatars for every world-endingly awful emotion you might have.

What is intact, though, is the musical curiosity. From With Teeth on, every proper Nine Inch Nails album has transformed all of Reznor’s different sides, from synthy gloom to muscular vroom, into one relatively monochromatic arena-sized thing. It’s been effective, but not especially dynamic. Even the ambient-experimental project Ghosts I-IV mostly found one tone and stuck with it. But on Hesitation Marks, there’s a lot going on. “Copy Of A,” the first full song, opens with a deeply uncomfortable keyboard wriggle that reminds me of Factory Floor. “Came Back Haunted” is Reznor’s finest straight-up synthpop song in years, maybe since “Closer,” and “Find My Way,” with its gorgeously florid pianos, isn’t far behind. The chorus on “All Time Low” is all Barry Gibb disco falsetto. A few rhythmic tracks are built on irregular-heartbeat pings and booms, like Chicago footwork or something — except that unlike footwork, Reznor actually does something with that weird rhythmic bed. “In Two” sounds like former NIN tour-openers TV On The Radio. “While I’m Still Here” has an honest-to-god funky horn section, and I practically did a spit-take the first time I heard them honk their way onto the otherwise-minimal clicks-and-boops track. This guy is still full of surprises.

But that sense of exploration was also there on Welcome oblivion, the underrated album that Reznor’s How to destroy angels_ band released earlier this year; a song like “Ice Age,” all skittery doom-folk, is like nothing Reznor’s ever done before. But Hesitation Marks puts that curiosity in service of big, catchy arena songs. Reznor’s best records have always been the ones he seemed like he had to make: Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral, The Fragile. Hesitation Marks, by contrast, feels like something of a writing exercise, like Reznor set himself the assignment of making an album that satisfied the requirements of booming festival-rock while still keeping him musically interested. The list of contributors who worked on the album is almost hilariously distinguished: Lindsey Buckingham! Adrian Belew! Alan Moulder! D’Angelo bassist Pino Palladino! And in interviews, Reznor has talked about how this is a more collaborative rock-band album than the solo-in-the-lab things he used to make. Still, the particular sensibility, the combination of sounds here, could not have come from anyone else. There’s a sense of vision at work here. By its nature, the album is a little more bloodless and removed than the music Reznor was making years ago. On the other hand, holy shit did he ever hit his mark. Songs like “Everything” and “Satellite” and “Came Back Haunted” are grand and majestic things, not shy or embarrassed about their power.

If rock radio still existed in any substantive way, songs like those would own the late fall. As it is, they’ll dominate car-trip and early-evening bar-soundtrack playlists. Maybe they’ll show up in commercials, or soundtracking movie trailers. You’ll probably be happy to encounter them, wherever you do, because they’re good songs. And even if Reznor is no longer transforming himself into the human embodiment of teenage pain, he’s made an album of really good songs that twist and wiggle in interesting ways, and it’ll take a while to understand all of them. Even the bonus-track remixes, from Oneohtrix Point Never and Todd Rudgren and Genesis P-Orridge, are great, and they’re great in a way that adds new wrinkles to songs that already had plenty of fascinating wrinkles. Hesitation Marks might not be the best Nine Inch Nails album of 2013; that’s probably still Yeezus. (Yeezus has that old urgency, the need factor.) Hesitation Marks is, however, the best thing we could’ve ever expected the content middle-aged version of Trent Reznor to make, and that is more than enough.

Hesitation Marks is out 9/3 on Columbia. Stream it at iTunes.

Comments (38)
  1. As someone who was never more than a peripheral fan, I have to say, this album is pretty rad (people use the word ‘rad’ to describe NIN, right?). It can get a bit same-y tonally, but I like that he lightened up on the distortion and let the blips and beats come to the forefront. It’s all got a great swagger to it.

  2. Please, that Kanye reference in a NIN review (even in that parenthesis) NO! JUST NO!

  3. I dig it so far… glad I caved and listened to the stream – I initially told myself to wait until I had the physical copy in my hands but who was I kidding?

    I personally have loved each NIN release for their own separate reasons. With that, I would definitely rate HM miles above The Slip. Where I would rank it in the complete discography I’ve yet to determine… but I’m enjoying the ride!

  4. I will preface this with the fact that NIN is my all time favorite “band” (not exactly a band, so I guess it’s more like Trent Reznor is my all time favorite musician), so I am 100% completely biased.

    That being said, I think this article is, for the most part, spot on and I totally respect your opinion as it is well thought out and you’re very positive, lacking any sense of pretension (I’m looking at you, PItchfork). My only gripe is that you say this album lacks that “need” that The Fragile, The Downward Spiral or PHM had. I disagree, but I think you do too, by contradicting yourself. You express how this is simply the next phase of his life and it happens to be a happy one. A lack of angst doesn’t diminish the “need”. When making music is your job, there is always a need. When you are a living legend, who put his band to rest for the foreseeable future to preserve its legacy, then make a new record, I’m pretty sure there’s a need to express something…

    As the title of your article states, it’s a “premature evaluation”, so perhaps you will find some deeper meaning and see what the overall driving force of this record was. Either way, great article, rock on…

    • NIN is my favorite rock band and has always been. I can’t listen to this right now, but I’m excited about the positive response, and I’m curious about it. I always knew Trent had a lot left to give. We still need the way the man sees music.

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  6. ‘Hesitation Marks might not be the best Nine Inch Nails album of 2013; that’s probably still Yeezus’ I didn’t realize Yeezus was a Nine Inch Nails album……oh and Yeezus is rubbish.

  7. you had me at “goobers”

  8. “Something I CAN Never Have”, please.

  9. I’m really happy about the write up here. Never before has Trent been so relevant until now. The whole sage perspective on Hesitation Marks is exactly where he needs to be and needs to reflect upon us. As NIN being my my favorite band since ’94, Hesitation Marks comes up as something so poignant in the grand scheme of things. My favorite tracks thus far are Find My Way, All Time Low, and Copy of A.

    Well done, Trent. See you in November.

  10. Going to see NIN this sunday in Philly!….So excited ^_^!!!

    Good to here positive things about Reznors new material

  11. So, I’ve been streaming the whole damn thing all day long. My favorite NIN record of the past 10 years has been With Teeth. But after listening to Hesitation Marks on repeat, I think I can safely say that Hesitation Marks > With Teeth.

  12. That is the most brilliant evaluation of Billy Corgan post 90′s that I have ever read, and being his biggest fan I have heard them all. Kudos on that.

  13. Does anybody else LOVE this new Kanye West record?

  14. Satellite is like With Teeth had a baby with Justified. I love it.

  15. “Everything” fits perfectly nestled in the middle. Its like the light at the end of a dark and dreary tunnel.

    • I was confused when I heard Everything on NPR but just FLOORED to hear it in the context of the record. It just tears right out of the speakers, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for that moment.

  16. I dont get why everyone keeps comparing Copy of A to Factory Floor kind of tune.. analog sequencing is pretty common no amongst electronic artist? Not dissing FF here, as im a big fan of them as well but I dont get the (lazy) comparison

  17. I feel the first half is stronger than the second. But some of the best songs come in the latter half (such as Various Methods Of Escape and While I’m Still Here). So all around a very strong record. I still have to listen a few more times to decide where exactly I would put this, but it does feel like one of the best NIN albums already. My favorite songs so far come from that killer sequence of All Time Low, Disappointed and Everything.

    Also, the general craft of the album is so, so impressive. It always is in some way with Trent, but I feel this time he juggled so many distinct elements. There’s a balance, but a sense that it would’ve fallen apart had something come a bit earlier or before in each song, or if it had any more or less of some instruments, which is so good, because I love the feeling of hearing a musician in a tight rope and pulling it off in a way that feels almost effortless. And in such a mature album! Again, I have to listen to it some more, but it already feels like one of the best albums of the year and I have a feeling this will be a mark on Trent’s career for more than being a comeback album after a huge break. This is some truly very exciting music, and shows just how much more Trent still has to offer us.

    • Oh man, In Two is fantastic. I don’t know how I didn’t love it the first listen, but I do now. One of the best tracks, for sure.

  18. Best record since “With Teeth”, if not since “The Fragile”. He has finally abandoned all that Sub-Manson-posturing of inane indutrial-rock that proliferated on “Year Zero” and “The Slip” and brought us something truely exciting again: Minimalist beats, experimental textures and interesting songwriting…

  19. All Time Low has such a sexy Bowie vibe. Can’t get enough of it.

  20. For anyone that digs 80s-90s Industrial (Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, KMFDM) you should check out the Youth Code stream on Pitchfork.

    • Hey man – I like what’s going on in terms of the beats and what not, but I don’t get too into the vocals – can you recommend anything like that, from any time, without vocals?

  21. “Hesitation Marks might not be the best Nine Inch Nails album of 2013; that’s probably still Yeezus.”

    I cringed.

  22. I wanna fuck this album like an animal!

    P.S. Horribly written article by the way. Since when was Yeezus (dumbest name for an album ever) a NIN album???????

    Hesitation Marks is not only the best album of the year by far, it’s also the smartest. For those intelligent enough to dig under the surface, the narrative it weaves is breathtaking.

  23. Regarding the “…sputtering, clanking industrial music of Chicago’s Wax Trax scene”, can anyone recommend some music/albums/artists?
    I’m assuming most is without vocals, which is what I’m looking for, for the most part…just some industrial, rhythmic beats.

  24. Well, there we go. Were I a music writer, this is the article I would like to have written. So, good job there.

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