2 stars (out of 4)
After setting aside Nine Inch Nails in 2009, Trent Reznor wrote an Oscar-winning film score for “The Social Network,” got married, had kids, and started another band (How to Destroy Angels).
Now he’s flying the Nine Inch Nails banner again – though to call it a “reunion” is a stretch, because Reznor has been the band’s sole constant the last 25 years. But with NIN comes a certain mind set, one that addresses a particularly bleak world view with a mixture of aggression, anger and drama. NIN was Reznor’s greatest theatrical invention; he gets to play the anti-hero, the permanent outsider tinkering with his future-world machines. With each album, he re-creates the troubled planet between his ears.
Reznor is 48, though, and the perspective has shifted. For a few years he experimented with new methods of releasing his music, the digital do-it-yourself pioneer who turned one album (the 2007 “Year Zero”) into an alternate reality game – the first cyber-era concept album? With his recent soundtrack and independently released work, he provided an excellent example of how an artist could age gracefully instead of turning into a caricature, constantly rehashing the hits of his youth.
Now that he’s presumably a calmer, more centered individual with a family and a cushy major-label deal to push product, he struggles with the notion of how to move forward on a more mainstream platform. “Hesitation Marks” (Columbia) is aptly titled. It’s an album laced with questions, anxiety and self-doubt. It feels less like a statement from a major artist than a sidestep.
“Everything I say has come before … I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow,” Reznor announces on “Copy of A,” as if to anticipate the response to an album that inevitably will be compared to its seven predecessors, including such generational landmarks as “The Downward Spiral” (1994) and “The Fragile” (1999).
On those earlier albums, Reznor established a sonic vocabulary that merged industrial clang with experimental atmospherics and made it personal – the composer’s thumbprint was so large that you could detect a Nine Inch Nails song after hearing only a couple of notes. “Hesitation Marks” continues in that tradition, but in more subdued fashion. The quieter moments explored on “The Fragile” serve as a template, particularly in the disturbed piano nocturne “Find My Way”; the desolate atmosphere and the gospel fragility of the vocals suit the mid-life Nine Inch Nails just fine.
Reznor’s ability to create sounds that aren’t readily identifiable and his skill at layering those foreign tones provide the most pleasurable moments: The way the wordless choir overtakes the chorus like a big cloud and the roughed-up guitar that muscles in over the electronic bleeps on “Came Back Haunted”; the falsetto vocals and gamelan-like percussion in “Various Methods of Escape”; the speaker-rattling bass tones and darting synths underpinning a disembodied vocal on “While I’m Still Here”; the hip-hop-like snap-crackle-pop minimalism of “Disappointed” overlaid with swarming bee-hive guitars.
But too much of “Hesitation Marks” sounds tentative. “Everything” evokes the chunky guitar clichés that Reznor once sought to kill, and much of the album’s final half (“Satellite,” “Running,” “I Would For You,” “In Two”) feels more like an impressive collage of sounds rather than a series of memorable songs.
Nor is Reznor investing much in these lyrics beyond sharing his anxiety. "I came back haunted,” he sings. But of course he did. “Hey! Everything is not OK!” he announces on “All Time Low.” It’s hard to argue with him.