by: Heather Fawn
An ardent NIN fan digs into their latest, Hesitation Marks, an album that encompasses their entire career, satisfying the hardcores, while also opening the door to the uninitiated….
Devotees who have been asking for more from a record than what The Slip had to offer, will find that Hesitation Marks resonates back to what truly feels like a complete Nine Inch Nails album. Not since With Teeth have we gotten our fix of that layered and varying journey of Reznor’s effortless weaving of synth and bass beats. For the uninitiated, this album is an all-encompassing glimpse into the depth of sound that sets NIN apart, while devoted fans get a taste of the vintage aspects of Reznor’s artistry.1
Whether you are just becoming initiated with this album, or you have been getting sucked into the visceral aural experience that is Nine Inch Nails for years now, Hesitation Marks has something for you. Though music critics and ‘soft journalists’ like to speculate on how attributes like age and sobriety might take away from an artist’s abilities, it is important to remember that these pundits are often full of shit and out of their depth. If anything, like wine — the sun-weathering, the mold and dirt and time spent in dark places with spider egg sacks hanging ominously just above the place in which you are slowly fermenting — age gives you an edge. You have the benefit of both hindsight and foresight, and you give less of a fuck what other people have to say about it. As an artist, this means that you are a master of your craft. And all the sediment you collect has a way of satisfying even discerning palates.
“Eater of Dreams,” the first track of the album, preps the listener with a softly unhinging instrumental the likes of which have not been visited since The Downward Spiral. Once into “Copy of A,” Reznor turns the energy up with crests and falls throughout that skillfully shaped listening experience which melds into “Came Back Haunted,” a track reminiscent of Reznor’s earliest work with forward-moving synth and lyrics that perhaps allude to his inability to shelve a band with so much to offer. “Find My Way” is classic Nine Inch Nails melancholy, with forlorn lyrics and piano chords that can’t decide whether they are opening or closing a wound. In typical fashion, “All Time Low,” transitions us to the next wave of emotions, with vocals that follow the beat in sarcastic-sounding chunks that eventually flow into a beautiful and simple undulating electronic instrumental with what can only be described as a lovely and soothing Reznor falsetto. “Disappointed” picks up the pace again – little needles of sound coupled with a string instrumental over muffled – then – unmuffled vocals creating a space in which the disappointment most certainly lives – at first bitter and then sweet as Reznor moves through the song.
“Everything,” the seventh track on the album, is the song that has threatened to make solid fans question their loyalty as it is almost satirically upbeat, with nothing familiar, other than Reznor’s vocals to guide the listener through this meadow of pop-punk. Unlike anything previously released by Nine Inch Nails, “Everything” caused the kind of backlash Reznor might have envisioned. Those who have strapped down into their seats for a dark and heavy journey will find themselves temporarily out of place and jarred, almost as if someone has thrown open the curtains in the middle of the night to reveal a shining sun. As happy as you want to be for Reznor, “Everything” makes you do so begrudgingly, and maybe that is the only way he could ask for your blessing, anyway.
I personally love the second half of the album. Some tracks introduce hip-hop and dance beats that occupy the current music scene, and Reznor uses them as well as any skilled audiophile. As he has mentioned in a few interviews, the overall feel of this album is almost minimalist in comparison to his others, but he, once again, arranges the architecture of sound in a way that few artists ever could. ”Satellite” which follows the out of place “Everything”’ contains lyrics that speak to the way technology has permeated humanity, and a catchy dance vibe that is likely to distract the unanalytical from its message. “Various Methods of Escape,” one of my favorites, begins as more or less a chill-out track with a sensual feel and impassioned crescendos but has a great drum-and-guitar brawny finish. “Running,” uses the full repertoire of sound space by bouncing parts of the song from the right to the left speakers while two separate loops of vocals fight your brain hemispheres for their full attention. It has the energy and a maddening liveliness that hits hard in a Pretty Hate Machine’s “Head Like a Hole” kind of way.
Next up is another great track, “I Would For You,” which takes us to a higher place. The low-pounding synth and bass in this song contrasts seductively with the subtle, soaring echo of the vocal melody, and for some reason you really get caught up in hoping that maybe this is a private serenade. The transition to “In Two” is seamless, setting the listener up for a bit of a beating, sneaking auto-tuning in with a chorus of Reznor’s vocal range and spindly, haunting repetition. Without warning, we arrive at “While I’m Still Here,” a song brimming with “white space” (no color or line) as the vocal melody alternates with a simple bass beat, and surprisingly, a saxophone, before a radiating cloud of sound sweeps us away in “Black Noise,” concluding the album in a flourishing nebula, which leaves the listener wanting more.2 Hesitation Marks contains a few songs that don’t sink in as deeply as their counterparts, but then again, sometimes it is the subtlety of the approach that sinks in over several listens that contributes to an album’s memorability.
What’s really exciting is that Hesitation Marks has that new-old feel. Layers of sound I hadn’t heard since The Downward Spiral and The Fragile creep back in like old friends, along with the kind of pummeling bass and unabashed synth that I imagine conceiving my future children to.3 As the album progresses, there’s no particular song that doesn’t fit or interrupts the flow other than the one previously mentioned. We feel the confusion, the paroxysm, the affliction, the fury, the aggression, the passion, and we feel it all in lethal doses that keep us on a wildly introverted path that is hard to step away from. When we get that little bit more we crave on the second disc, the impression is that either they’re meant to soften our descent back to reality or, more likely, to leave us feeling distinctly uneasy.
If you come to this album looking for that signature Nine Inch Nails sound, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you have appreciated the variety in Reznor’s musical expression over the years, you will not be disappointed. If you just want to throw yourself into an intense listening experience, this is your album. Hesitation Marks is a heaping mouthful of a career that will keep increasing in value – so drink up!
- If you are unfamiliar with the band’s history, or their general approach to the music industry in the past decade, suffice it to say that Reznor has worked to innovate the consumer experience with more aplomb than the average musician. Besides working to expand his repertoire as an artist, he has also experimented with marketing and album-release strategies that stretched the perimeters of how music is consumed online, and what that could look like. Read more here! Like other artists of his calibre, Reznor has been vocal about the way online music consumption has shaped the overall landscape of the music industry, and this struggle to profitably maintain notoriety whilst reaching as many listeners as possible appears only to have just begun. [↩]
- Luckily, three remixes with far-out space sounds follow the first disc. It has an atmospheric feel until the “While I’m Still Here – Breyer P-Orrige ‘Howler’ Remix” (track 3) with audio of someone speaking about an out-of-body experience and a large dose of weird (beastly distorted animal noises and an emphasis on the lyrics, ticking time is running out – I think you’ll dig it). [↩]
- Though Reznor is rarely explicit in his choice of lyrics, there is something about the undulating and pulsating beats, the alternating breathy-then-forceful vocals and raw emotion that just make you want to get down, make love. [↩]