By Daphne Carr
If Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 masterpiece Downward Spiral was an opera of depression-induced suicide, then new album Hesitation Marks is an opera in which Trent Reznor grieves, forgives and buries the body. Like all things Nine Inch Nails, this means there is nary a party jam on the album, but it does seem that Reznor is finally ready to cautiously celebrate the life he’s made after the two decades of success and fortune.
In opera, the difference between drama and narration is marked in different forms: aria and recitative. The aria is the place of bold emotion, and the music that conveys that runs hot with melody and sweaty with fresh tortured soul. The first ten years of Nine Inch Nails bears out that plan in songs overwhelmed with rage, choking back tears or otherwise enacting the raw emotional states. “Head Like a Hole,” “Wish” and even the sleazy croon of “Closer” were glimpses of an Id unleashed into mainstream pop consciousness. That era’s Reznor was nothing if not the Romantic archetype, so much so that his myth became entangled with the very ’90s obsession with (non-celibate) vampires. The myth of his superhuman miserabilism was made both through his own consciously dark choices—the man lived near Anne Rice in New Orleans and made an album at the site of the Manson family murders—but also his air of illusive, temperamental crankiness that was induced by mental illness and its crutch, chemical dependency.
In the early 2000s, Reznor got sober and started to assess the difference between feeling and reality. In the past decade, Nine Inch Nails has slowly developed into place where Reznor can comment on the world as he begins to live in it as a person. This is where the recitative form began to overtake the music. In opera, as in Nails, it’s a quick moving, non-melodic vocal framed by sparse chords, which serves the storyline and comments on the emotional states whipped up through aria. The history of Nine Inch Nails involves a shift from aria to recitative told through electro-pop structures, with Hesitation Marks being delivered almost entirely in atonal whispers about the violence of the past over expertly crafted, minimalist beats from the Kraftwerk school and Reznor’s signature piano-tinged industrial noise.
Whispers are also a good trick to save Reznor’s voice, which at 48 had probably not anticipated the psychical trauma of screaming “no new tale to tell 26 years on my way to hell” to arenas for two decades. Instead, this album is full of easily sung phrases cribbed from various dance music genres, from techno to (yes, really) reggae: short, catchy chants that change only minutely with each repetition (“Copy of a”) and use effects such as dub reverb (“All Time Low”) to do some of the work. On “Find My Way” and “Disappointed,” his voice is squeezed tight to a radio-band, while wordless vocables and guitar float around as ghosts more present. These myriad textures and timbres that float over drum machines and unapologetically pop synths sound like so many aural memories Reznor chose to visit one last time before moving on.
The skeleton of something new peaks out beyond these sonic apparitions, though. The restrained vocal choices, low-distortion quotient, funk basslines and a renewed focus on groove-based composition make Hesitation Marks the most new wave of all existing Nine Inch Nails albums — and a clear step forward. “Everything” is one of the sure departures from the Nails tone or temperament past. “I am home, I am free,” Reznor sings with an open throat, the only such fully sung song that really works on the album. It is an unapologetic new wave tune with clean channel guitar hooks in the grand New Order, and in an alternate universe where early NIN-loving nu-metal bands hadn’t altered alternative rock radio forever, this tune would be the feel-good hit of early autumn.
The song is a flash point for fans and critics alike. Pitchfork thinks “Everything” an ugly overreach of the band’s boundaries while Spin considers it a perfect piece of our current ’80s pop revival. Fans have called the song “dangerous” “easy listening crap,” with one devotee even starting a petition to have “Everything” removed from the album before it ruins the perfectly miserable legacy of the band. Indeed, the anger around this song is stronger than any of the anger on the album itself, and is likely to fuel a smirk on Reznor’s face well into the next recording session.
Consider the long view. Hesitation Marks is Nine Inch Nails eighth studio album. This is a number very few artists ever get to, and even less so for those working on global scale. Think about the long-career, major mainstream artists who influenced Reznor: Prince, Metallica, Depeche Mode. All of them had invented and reinvented themselves up to around album seven, then each fell into the clichéd miasma or at least a genre-backwater. So to expect Reznor to be something new is to ask him to step into another category of artist, one inhabited by the likes of David Bowie and Jay Z. To get to that place, it seems that a little ritual sacrifice is always necessary. Bowie had to kill Ziggy and Jay had to let go of his fixation on the Marcy Projects (at least temporarily) in order to make music that mattered in middle age. Reznor had been trying for 20 years to kill his own myth, and it is only now on Hesitation Marks that he’s given a proper burial to his tortured soul. He had already reinvented himself in the Bowie/Jay Z mogul model, and now it seems clear that the future music is once again his to make. This album is not that music, but a prelude to it.
Daphne Carr is the author of the 33 1/3 book on Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine.