A line like “everything I say has come before” in jittery faux dance track “Copy of A” off Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ first offering in 5 years possesses particular relevance circa 2013. In his review for Stereogum, Tom Breihan posited Kanye West’s oppressive Yeezus may be the best Nine Inch Nails record of 2013. “Yeezus has that old urgency, the need factor,” he wrote in his column. 20-plus years into his career, Trent Reznor isn’t infected by the same desperation that defined Pretty Hate Machine or Downward Spiral. Often those albums defining numbers were in-the-red screamers where Reznor seethed with contempt for anything and everything. Much of Hesitation Marks turns the heat on the towering inferno down, until only a flickering blue pilot light is left.
A small burning ember is an adept metaphor for Hesitation Marks, because Reznor is often at his best here when he’s giving his “least”. Paradoxically the course of skeletal “Find My Way” is plotted over skittish drum sequencing. Reznor strips his cavernous mine of all but the essentials. A regretful whisper hovers above a haunted piano line crawling up from the abyss. He dabbles in the “Children’s Prayer”, though it smacks of an individual willing to try anything once to find a solution. While quizzical and propulsive “Disappointed” finds time for post-rock guitar climbing, Reznor remains firmly grounded by a no muss no fuss clap track. He looks skyward solely to question Superman’s motives as he flies overhead; warning him “nothing is ever going to change.”
Reznor remains “one-step ahead” on twittering “Satellite”, though xx guitar runs are hiding in the jungle groove’s thickets. 2013 has become the year of satellites and surveillance, and listening to a Nine Inch Nails album is akin to listening to a slowly collapsing conversation, so why not cross the two wires together? Reznor can’t shed a straightjacket in “Various Methods of Escape”. Crestfallen he wonders aloud “why’d you have to make this so hard?” Losing yourself in another person can be a frightening experience and Reznor is screaming from behind claustrophobic maze walls.
Lyrically Hesitation Marks myopically focuses on fleeing. The pulsating “Running” scans for hiding spots and comes up empty-handed; leaving Reznor to resign “I’ll never get away.” Penultimate track “While I’m Still Here” sees time sprinting away, each lap brings Reznor one step closer to the end. Even “Copy of A” concerns Reznor’s attempts to “catch up with myself.” The race Reznor is really running is to reclaim the throne. Desolate industrial nihilism tempered by dance-pop sensibilities is no-longer a non-starter and Reznor’s empire is being encroached upon.
Reznor’s “problem” is comparable to the challenge My Bloody Valentine masterfully confronted in m b v. The void their near two-decade absence left was filled in by worthy successors spanning Sigur Ros to Beach House and Deerhunter. Addressing this, I wrote: “MBV attempting to begin again in a landscape it invented is virtually unprecedented, but restless innovators like Kevin Shields have rarely been concerned with precedence.” The descriptor “restless” can be readily appended to Reznor and Hesitation Marks’ weakest moments are when he settles down into familiar habits.
“All Time Low”s two-step thud and funk strut faintly recalls the insecure carnal feast of “Closer”, but defanged by an impish Wurlitzer. Both are rabid dogs fighting to stay alive; “Closer” is just more feral. “Everything” tries to outpace Hesitation Marks lurching crestfallen numbers, only to disappear into a pack of early 2000s emo imitators. “Come Back Haunted”s drum hits and low-end bass burbles teases a militant chorus that never quite finds its rallying cry. Reznor says goodbye during the track, if he could just put the past in the rearview altogether.
Previously mentioned “Disappointed” asks “what did you expect?” and this far into Reznor’s career as NIN it’s a fair question to ask. Can we expect Reznor to die rather than relinquish control? Is Reznor still willing to hold on to what he wants to believe? Hesitation Marks never clears the high-bar because of reluctance to answer these questions. Finishing instrumental “Black Noise” flees before any conflict is resolved. Downward Spiral was an unrelenting bullet to the brain; here Reznor has a jittery finger teasing the trigger as the screen fades to black.