Review by Will Harris
WARNING: This video has been identified by Epilepsy Action to potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised.
You only have to skim the first lines of the many interviews with Trent Reznor published in the last few weeks to see that his former penchant for self-destruction is as famous as his work (despite platinum albums, Oscars, etc). Finding himself oftentimes overlooking the precipice, he’s survived to use his experiences from the brink to drive his idiosyncratic combo of electronics, fury and whatever else he feels like on that given day for Nine Inch Nails. When Reznor shelved NIN in 2009, there was some implication that an album like Hesitation Marks might not ever happen; aptly, its title implies a reluctance to revisit those dark corners of the self. Though now a reformed family man, Reznor takes the plunge once again with NIN’s first release since 2008, emerging with some thrilling new sounds as well as the familiar gloomy themes we’ve come to expect.
Though he now explores themes of self-destruction retrospectively, these are still ghosts that haunt the 48-year-old: “I never meant for this” he laments into the sparse, Burial-like electronic vastness in the stunning ‘Find My Way’, before the loneliness subsides to a serene, piano-led wordless chorus. Other tracks hint towards other recurrent themes in Reznor’s work: there’s disillusionment (‘Disappointed’), fatalism (‘Running’, ‘While I’m Still Here’) and fear (‘Satellite’), though it seems he retreads these concepts not out of lack of imagination, but because they’re important to him.
Indeed, this is far from NIN’s least imaginative output, even if it doesn’t stray too far from the band’s established style, which Reznor has somehow managed to refine even further. More than ever before, he sounds like the last man on earth whispering from amidst the shadowy circuitry and dim, flickering LEDs (‘Find My Way’), or the tormented soul crying out from the noisy engine room of his own techno-mechanical nightmare (the chorus of ‘Everything’). Amongst this is material that would be comfortable on Downward Spiral, like ‘Copy of A’ and ‘Came Back Haunted’ — both standout tracks — but there are some startling surprises in here too. Reznor co-opts gay disco for his own dark purposes on ‘Satellite’, and he shouts to a kind of twisted funk for ‘All Time Low’.
The production, perhaps unsurprisingly, is superb. It’s an absolute riot to listen to on headphones: ‘Copy of A’ has percussion fleetingly dance from left to right; ‘Disappointed’ holds heaving guitar swells that threaten from beneath and sonic missiles that crackle and yawn, and at least three Reznors chant at you from different directions in the outro to ‘Running’.
In spite of the excellent mixing, however, the album doesn’t always feel as cohesive as you’d expect it to. The jarring skip to post-punk with ‘Everything’ will probably be the one that catches most people out, but really by the end of that track there’s been enough noise-laden thrash-iness in the chorus that you just go with it. It’s actually the last third of the album where the record starts to lose some direction, as if the segues are there simply to tie them together. Also, by this point, NIN’s well-worn technique of slathering layers towards a song’s climax starts losing its edge; it’s an effective device, but by track eight it’s already been used three times. This is to little detriment of the utterly absorbing 14 tracks here, however; taking the songs individually, Hesitation Marks cuts as deep as Nine Inch Nails’ best.
8 out of 10
- The Eater of Dreams
- Copy of A
- Came Back Haunted
- Find My Way
- All Time Low
- Various Methods of Escape
- I Would For You
- In Two
- While I’m Still Here
- Black Noise