One of my favorite aspects of an artist releasing a new album is refamiliarizing myself with their work while I’m waiting for the new one to come out. It’s a pretty universal fan experience; checking your favorite team’s preseason trades and stats, rewatching the last season of a show before the season premiere, or rereading the book before it gets turned into an over-budgeted movie are all fairly equal comparisons.
Nine Inch Nails’ eighth studio album Hesitation Marks comes out in a few weeks (the released tracks for the curious), meaning that I’ve been slipping NIN more and more into my daily listening. From the groups I’ve done this with lately, flipping through Trent Reznor’s back catalog has been one of the easier and more pleasant listens. NIN doesn’t bat .1000, but the discography’s devoid of major bumps; end-to-end albums, a tailored playlist, or “play all” with infrequent skipping makes for great “hands-off” listening. And I’ve realized something about Reznor and his music.
The guy has never let up.
For all of the different artistic bends, concepts, and sounds from 80’s synth-pop to industrial metal to electronic soundscapes, Reznor’s music has burned with the same intensity for over 20 years now. It’s natural enough to sound intense and pissed off when you’re young and starting off as he did on debut Pretty Hate Machine and the Broken EP (the most outright metal NIN ever got), and the dedication to self-destruction surrounding The Downward Spiral and The Fragile naturally lent themselves to rage.
Normally when an artist goes through recovery and rehabilitation as Reznor did in 2001, the result is music more life-affirming and warmer than their past work. For Nine Inch Nails, it meant With Teeth, a politically-minded album that aimed to sound like a band playing live. With Teeth, possibly NIN’s least essential album, was their first as a brand: this anxious and angry distillation of metal, industrial, electronic, rock, and (yes) pop into one, burning package is what Nine Inch Nails is supposed to sound like. That album’s political anxiety bubbled over into Year Zero, an electronic-based album where America has become a dystopia in the name of freedom. Such a backdrop is inclined toward the teeth-grinding, fist-clenching aggression that’s been written into the band’s DNA.
But it was Nine Inch Nails’ initial wave goodbye album The Slip that showed me just how consistently powerful they’ve been over the last 20 years. The Slip‘s first half is a condensed version of the band in “heavy” mode, with the pulsating “Letting You” as a standout. Built on a relentless drum loop and furious guitar with a chorus and outro that pound listeners into submission, it doesn’t sound like the kind of song you’re supposed to pull off in your 40s.
None of Hesitation Marks‘ released songs so far have that same assaulting heaviness, but they don’t lack the intensity. Even “Everything”, which has been lampooned as a Lit or Smash Mouth song, has blasts of chaotic distortion and noise that show the tension under the song’s bright exterior. “Copy of A” layers the ambient electronics on top of each other, and I can’t think of a better welcome back mission statement than “Came back haunted”. These new songs have a bit more shine, but have the quintessential NIN anger and raggedness. As for Reznor himself, he’s happily married with two small children, has a respected career as a composer, a well-received album out this year already, and a lasting legacy.
What’s impressive is that he’s made and kept that legacy now with a decade of being clean. Plenty of artists made music coming from a dark place, but once they make their statement or get famous/clean, the spark is lost. Marilyn Manson, NIN’s contemporary, has spent a decade at this point recycling ideas and clawing for an artistic high that won’t come. Linkin Park, who have been around for half the time NIN has, are already making stunted, warmed over versions of their previous output. Pearl Jam sounds vital again, but had to spend most of a decade waiting to become the free-spirited arena act they always wanted to be. True, Reznor never hit the same critical acclaim as The Downward Spiral brought, but the guy’s had remarkable quality control while sober. Just because the drugs and misery stopped doesn’t mean the art did.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where NIN’s attitude became professional instead of personal, but easy to see why it happened. One of the less spoken-of aspects to the band’s output is how intricately the music is put together. If you grab a song from any era of the band’s history, a discerning listener can hear all of the moving parts clicking into place like clockwork, each one a key part to the song as a whole. Reznor’s self-conscious of these parts, and based in how readily he makes the masters available for remixing, all for people getting in on it themselves.
Nine Inch Nails went from being the go-to for teenagers with fishnets and black nail polish to a rock institution by always evolving without changing what made their miserable heart tick. Reznor never tried to “force” a particular sound, or hold the group to one particular skill set, but managed to polish the group so that he grew up with Nine Inch Nails, and not in spite of it. The overwrought flaws have always been there, but the growth has always outweighed the decay. Hopefully, the new album won’t hesitate to do the same.