I’m sure that the day after Nine Inch Nails’ final date of their “Wave Goodbye” farewell tour in 2009, someone somewhere started counting the days until the next Nine Inch Nails album. Cynically, the fact that NIN still owed their old label a greatest hits comp ensured one or two polished B-sides or new one-offs would surface down the line (by NIN mastermind Trent Reznor’s admission, such an obligation birthed what would eventually become Hesitation Marks), but realistically, Reznor’s become too prolific to stay away from his main gig for long.
In one sense, Reznor is right on schedule. The five year wait between Hesitation Marks and NIN’s last album The Slip mirrors the five to six year gaps between the band’s first four albums. This time, instead of being held up releasing EPs, battling substance abuse, or recovery, he busied himself by scoring films, creating another band, and starting a family. By all accounts, he’s been upbeat and stable. The skinny guy that broke through in a torture-art music video found his way into a happy middle adulthood, who knew?
I bring up the skinny art-goth guy because Hesitation Marks is thinking about him, too. Even if the band’s hiatus was (relatively) short, this album still has hallmarks of a reunion album: everything’s a little bigger, a little more confident, and a little more self-aware. Hesitation Marks very much sounds like a Nine Inch Nails record, but has the most in common with Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. It goes back to the more industrial/synth-pop structure, where the songs gradually unfold among synths and programmed drums, and the guitars are used for texture instead of hooks.
But Reznor and collaborating producers Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder, who have worked together on multiple projects, bring a refinement and sophistication to the album’s craft and production. The “standard” mix, while loud, gives the variety of sounds on the album room to breathe, and the “audiophile” mix enhances the album’s already large dynamic range. Simply put, you can slap Hesitation Marks on everything from Apple earbuds to $1000 speakers, and the mix will sound great.
This approach gives songs like “Copy of A”, “All Time Low”, and “Various Methods of Escape” the time and room they need to build, develop, and ultimately pay off. “Copy of A”, released as a second single, serves as a great opener, and is exemplar of what is to come: a lone synth loop builds on top of a drum beat while other sounds bleep and bloop their way into the mix, with several instrumental sections. Of Hesitation Marks‘ three released singles so far, it’s been the best received. Interestingly enough, Hesitation Marks also signifies the first time that NIN’s sound has been…well, fashionable. Sure, it’s still left of center fair, but there’s a market for post-80’s smart guy electronic music now that didn’t exist in the 90s or 00s.
Lead single “Came Back Haunted” falls in the same territory as The Strokes’ “All the Time” on Comedown Machine, or “she found now” off m b v: it’s the safe, assuring “We’re still us” song that sounds overly familiar, but still pleasant. “Came Back Haunted” doesn’t inspire much until its chorus, which channels the pop-industrial sound that made “Closer” a hit. The song’s extended outro also brings that seminal hit to mind with a guitar reworking the “Closer motif”. Other single “Everything” is the most surprising NIN song to date; it’s effectively a bright, shiny New Wave tune that, aside from a glitchy chorus, espouses the band’s normal sound for manic guitar strums. It shouldn’t work, but the song’s so damn happy that it succeeds after the shock/novelty value wears off.
Other first half highlights include the previously mentioned glammy “All Time Low” and the ballad “Find My Way”. “Find My Way” calls the stuttering electronics and soundscapes of How To Destroy Angels to mind, as well as some of Ghost I-IV‘s moody piano. It’s another highlight. “In Two”, one of the more aggressive cuts on the album, featuring droning guitars and heavy drum beats, showing a possible new direction for NIN’s next release. Lastly, “I Would For You” blends the songcraft of With Teeth with Hesitation Marks‘ more textured approach; it’s arguably the best song here.
The biggest hurdles to Hesitation Marks are an extended runtime and poor pacing. The vast majority of the tracks reach the five to six minute mark, and some (“All Time Low”, “Various Methods of Escape”) take awhile getting off the ground; there isn’t a lot of immediate material here. The sequencing feels off as well: this LP of danceable beats doesn’t settle into a song-to-song groove at any point during its 61 minute runtime. Lopping ten or so minutes off that length in the form of lesser but passable cuts like “Satellite” or “Running” would go a long way.
Hesitation Marks obtains its name from “hesitation wounds”, which are shallow cuts made by testing a weapon before using it for suicide. Such a name fits this record: yes, there’s plenty of darkness around it, but there’s a thoughtfulness and a lightness present, too. Maybe you can survive everything, maybe this suicide doesn’t have to happen. A revelation like that can mean a new outlook on life, like a rebirth. While Hesitation Marks isn’t an instant classic, it shows Nine Inch Nails sounding as vital as ever, and opens new directions for the group to explore. Four out of five stars.
tl;dr: Nine Inch Nails comes back to life, sleeker and brighter than before, 4/5