Industrial titan Trent Reznor ditches the blasts of rage for a cleaner, smoother, more direct sound
When he broke out at the dawn of the ’90s with a selection of songs about suicide, slavery and fist-fucking, it probably wasn’t immediately obvious that Trent Reznor was future elder-statesman material. The passing years, though, have revealed a certain artfulness hardwired into Reznor’s brutal and brutalised industrial rock. He can certainly write a song – ‘Hurt’ was one of his, of course – while Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 masterpiece ‘The Downward Spiral’ demonstrated his gift for abbatoir atmospherics.
‘Hesitation Marks’ breaks a five-year Nine Inch Nails fast that’s seen Reznor instead engaged in other pursuits: scoring films (The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and recording as How To Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig. And while ‘Hesitation Marks’ clearly has one eye on the past – check the sleeve, by ‘The Downward Spiral’ artist Russell Mills – this is the sound of a cleaner, smoother Nine Inch Nails, one that delights in complexities of rhythm more than caustic blasts of rage.
Pleasingly, though, Reznor does beats with muscle to match his impressive biceps. Lead single ‘Came Back Haunted’ is familiar fare, an aggro one-man call-and-response that could have slid onto 2005’s ‘With Teeth’. But it’s elsewhere that the record finds its feet. ‘Copy Of A’ is a furious acid pulse that pastes on rhythmic layers to the brink of overload; squint, though, and you might mistake it for LCD Soundsystem in leather trousers and black nail varnish. ‘Running’ is a minimal techno shuffle that could fit nicely into a Ricardo Villalobos set, even with Reznor’s eerie, hollowed-out croon. ‘Disappointed’ conjures up gusts of murky-black guitar interference, but there’s no interrupting its rigid electro pulse. It’s worth noting that, while ‘Hesitation Marks’ features contributions from guitar heroes Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac and Adrian Belew of King Crimson, there are no showy cameos, no grandstand soloing: it’s all done anonymously, just another grinding cog in the NIN machine.
Nine Inch Nails have a long-held reputation as shouty angst for killer nerds. But ‘Hesitation Marks’ suggests that if Reznor’s deep-dive plunges into the grim subconscious were performed with the aim of catharsis, it’s finally working. Take ‘Everything’, perhaps the first Nine Inch Nails song you could almost describe as, well, cheerful. “I survived everything/I have tried everything”, sings Reznor, over whooshing, anthemic guitars. There are even – no, really – vocal harmonies. It’s the mark of a Nine Inch Nails far more concerned with being straightforward and direct, peeling away the gusty ambience and cutting right to the heart of the matter.