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.