You might not be able to put your finger on it at first, but there’s definitely something different about Hesitation Marks, the first album by Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails in five years, and the latest comeback from a moniker historically prone to hiatus. Not that it isn’t good—in fact, it’s one of Reznor’s best—but something has definitely changed.
Let’s start with what is the same. The man-vs-machine, disturbing-yet-eerily-satisfying industrial rock-meets-dance vibe—yep, that’s there. A clockwork-factory instrumental intro segues into the manic pulse of “Copy Of a,” slows a bit for the horror-tinged “Came Back Haunted”, slows down a bit more for the airy “Find My Way”—but the metallic clanks, buzzes, dings and beeps remain the timekeepers throughout. So that’s definitely signature NIN.
Also present is the darkness—the gothic, the morbid, the macabre. References to despair, drug use and suicidal tendencies, understated but definitely present. So that’s there, too.
But what is it? Hesitation Marks somehow indicates a departure from the norm for Nine Inch Nails. What are we hearing that we weren’t hearing on the early works like Pretty Hate Machine or even the more recent The Slip?
There’s little doubt that Trent Reznor is in quite a different place in life than he was even as recently as five years ago. He’s married now, with children. He’s also sober and straight—not to mention older. He started NIN when he was in his 20s, and now he’s 48. All of this has got to be having a bit of an effect on things.
And there’s more—now he’s an Oscar winner. During the most recent break from NIN, he started composing film scores, even winning an Academy Award for his soundtrack for The Social Network in 2010. You don’t work on projects like that without seeing your skills honed a bit—and of course, it gives you a bit of prestige in the music market. (People look at Reznor with a little more now than they did in his earlier, angsty days, and they weigh his words a bit more heavily.)
So yes, Hesitation Marks definitely bears the “marks” of someone who is more refined, mature, and perhaps a bit more philosophical than in years past. All of this comes out in the record, making it a Nine Inch Nails album that stays relevant for today rather than reaching too far back into the past. And that’s a good thing, because it makes the record believable.
But no…there’s still more. What IS it? Maybe we’ll find a clue in some of the lyrics:
“I said goodbye, but I had to try / And I came back haunted…Everywhere now reminding me / I am not who I used to be” –“Came Back Haunted”
“I am little pieces, little pieces, little pieces / Pieces that were picked up on the way / Embedded with a purpose, with a purpose, with a purpose / The purpose has become quite clear today” –“Copy Of a”
“I survived everything / I have tried everything…I am home, I believe / I am home, I am free” –“Everything”
Wait a second. These are Nine Inch Nails lyrics? The same guy who wrote “I hurt myself today” wrote “I am home, I am free”?
Yes. While Reznor still unflinchingly explores dark, raw, honest places and does not pretend to have conquered his demons, these shafts of light occasionally penetrate the darkness. These are not the lyrics of one tortured and overcome by despair, depression and addiction; they are the words of one who understands the dark places but has apparently come through many of them, and lived to tell the tale.
And that’s what’s different about Hesitation Marks. It’s one element present that above all else that sets this album apart from the others: hope.
In a genre known for doom, that could have easily spelled the end of NIN, for real. But hope is sprinkled amid the struggle in a way that is somehow not preachy, nor agenda-driven—just honest and real. And for that reason, it works. The result: this is by far Reznor’s most mature effort—the perfect NIN album for its time, and one of the best of Reznor’s long career.