Trent Reznor and company really surprised us this year. Pretty much the same day he released a new album with his side project How To Destroy Angels, Trent took to the web to announce that a new Nine Inch Nails album was on its way. He also spoke of reimagining what the band should be. Within no time, Hesitation Marks was released.
The best way I can sum the album up is to say that this is a sober, clear-headed Reznor coming to terms with his past. Since battling his drug addictions that held him down in the late 90s, he re-emerged. But the near-perfect (at least I think) Year Zero is a concept album. Trent stepped outside his self loathing to tell a gripping story of a totalitarian future. Now after taking a break from Nine Inch Nails and clearing his head with side projects, and The Slip, an album that didn’t really feel like an album for some reason (although still really good), he has re-emerged in true form here. Trent looks in the mirror and sees what he can be and what is no longer. The production is detailed and sharp. It doesn’t get bogged down like some of his past work has when he loads in too much detail.
The album starts with the clicks and machine noise of “The Eater of Dreams” that builds up and gives way to the frantic but simple clicky electro beat of “Copy of a”. The song has many of the classic elements but seems to find Trent possibly able to mock himself now, but then then turning around and questioning those accusing him of being unoriginal of themselves being the same. The song boasts the first of a few guest appearances – this time Lindsey Buckingham on guitar of Fleetwood Mac fame and Pino Palladino, session bassist extraordinaire (Gary Numan, David Gilmour, Paul Young, Adele, etc). Yet they are mixed in such a way you wouldn’t realize it was them until someone told you, but their artistry is a great addition. Next up is “Came Back Haunted”, with a grinding robotic bassline behind what seems to be a confessional of Trent’s brush with death a few years back and the way it changed him from that point on. “Find My Way” follows with a beat driven by what sounds almost like cracking ice. The beauty really is in the details on this album. There are so many little touches and sounds that are a treat for the ears. This one features guitar by Adrian Belew of King Crimson fame. This is one of the more atmospheric and quiet(er) songs. Next is “All Time Low”, one of the..umm.. funkier songs on the album. Pino Palladino gives this one an irresistible bass line. The song seems to be about Trent facing his demons when he stumbles. The quirky guitar really makes this song. Following that is “Disappointed”, a fast song with an almost Kraftwerk beat where Trent muses “what did you expect?” about revealing his dark side to his lover.
The next song is the complete WTF left turn of the album, a chirpy song called “Everything”. It starts with a beat reminiscent of early synth-pop Depeche Mode (think “Dreaming of Me”), and turns into a pop-punk-infused *happy* Nine Inch Nails song about Trent overcoming his former self and winning. The song still gets heavy, and it’s still a winner, but it will completely catch you off guard.
The second half of the album kicks off with some deep electronic funk rhythms in “Satellite”. Big brother is watching you. This seems like an idea that strayed from Year Zero that found a better home on this album. Definitely one of my two or three favorites here. “Various Methods of Escape” follows with a killer bass line again from Pino Palladino. This pacing of this one sways back closer to older NIN. Trent argues with himself the need to let go and move past, as the title suggests, his former addictions. “Running” is much faster track based in simple 80s style drum machines. As we know, nothing is simple with NIN, so the music turns nightmarish and the lyrics paranoid about Trent’s ability to escape his urges. The jagged guitar adds to this claustrophobic feel. “I Would For You” seems to be directed at his wife Mariqueen Maandig Reznor, as a statement that if he can change, he would try to be better for her.
So while this isn’t a concept album per say, it definitely seems to be a cycle of songs up to this point about Trent’s coming of age and trying to change for the better. “In Two” keeps going in this direction with another hypnotic groove full of ear candy, while Reznor explores the difference between the two sides to his personality. This one is definitely one of the standout tracks. Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar is mixed into this one. See if you can pick it out of the mix. “While I’m Still Here” completes this chapter in the book of Trent Reznor’s diary. It contains a creative percussion track that reminds me of more experimental Peter Gabriel (think “Excellent Birds”). Trent comes to realize here that he no longer wants to be alone, and while he’s got time left, he wants to share it. “Black Noise”, the last track here, is really just a moody two minute extension of the prior track that disintegrates into… you guessed it… “black” noise.
The deluxe edition, while not only nice to have for its sturdy book style packaging full of beautiful artwork, contains a second disc with three remixes by people Reznor admires and trusts with his work. First is “Find My Way” remixed by Oneohtrix Point Never, a one man act from Brooklyn. The remix brings a soft reflective tone to the meditative lyrics. And unlike some remixes, the music fits the original melody structure. “All Time Low” was trusted in the hands of Todd Rundgren of all people. I’m assuming that Reznor is a secret fan of his and Utopia’s music, or at the very least his production work. Rundgren gives this a different beat and different instrumentation, even a big beat drum kick, but again it fits and his experimentation is really good and takes the song in a different direction while keeping the intent of the original in place. Last of the three, “While I’m Still Here” is handed to Genesis P-Orridge, leader of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. The song isn’t changed drastically here. Instead the vocals are reshaped as a duet and spooky atmospherics are added. Being that P-Orridge is one of Trent’s heroes, this is an interesting meeting of the minds.
Of note here is that Trent listens to his audiophile fans. In the age of the mp3, Trent offered something extra with this release. If you bought the album through the Nine Inch Nails website, you were given a free downloadable FLAC version of the “Audiophile Edition” of Hesitation Marks. This was mastered quieter so that more detail was there in the mix and not crowed out by overprocessing and loudness wars practices. I for one can say that this mix does the album so much justice. The clarity of the details is just breathtaking.
In my eyes this is one of Nine Inch Nails’ finest albums. It is a cohesive whole, yet it contains great individual songs. The production is top notch. It sounds like Trent may have actually *enjoyed* the creative process here. Definitely among 2013’s best recordings.
Get your own copy of Hesitation Marks HERE:
Check out some great videos and performances from the album:
“Came Back Haunted”:
“Various Methods of Escape” (Live on Jimmy Kimmel):
“Copy of a” (Live – Vevo Presents):
“In Two” (Live – Vevo Presents):
“Everything” (an over-the-top cheesy fan-made video for that had me laughing my butt off):