Music review: Hesitation Marks

 

Nine Inch Nails wonderboy Trent Reznor is back after a self-imposed hiatus. Judging by new album Hesitation Marks, the man’s still got it.

 

The news that Trent Reznor was returning to the studio was greeted with mixed emotions by die-hard fans. The fear that that their hero might, after all, have feet of clay was ever-present.

Hesitation Marks does not only prove such fears wrong, it shatters them in a display of sonar mastery that makes this album one of the band’s finest so far.  Worrying rumours that the king of existential angst has been softened by marriage and kids turned out to be unfounded, a welcome fact that is immediately evident as the album’s intro, The Eater of Dreams, kicks off. Although a mere 52-seconder, its subtle synth gives a reliable taste of (darker) things to come.

A split second of silence launches us straight into Copy of A, which was the first single to be released by the band as a teaser to the album. With lyrics like “I am just a finger on a trigger on a finger; Doing everything I’m told to do”, the track points to classic Reznor self-doubt in the best tradition of Head like a Hole, but without the perversities of the latter. Maybe fatherhood did leave an impact, after all.

Interestingly, fans have pointed out that the track’s lyrics also reflect dialogue in the David Fincher movie Fight Club, where the narrator explains how with insomnia nothing is real, and “everything is a copy of a copy of a copy”. A reference that may very well be real, given that Jim Uhls scripted the movie (based on the novel by Chuck Palahnuik) while listening to Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral on loop.

Equally interestingly, but definitely more surprising, is the realisation that Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham contributed to the track. That is one collaboration that followers of both bands would hardly have predicted.

The mood is a haunted one, if you’ll forgive me punning on the next track, Came Back Haunted. Given the effective synth-work and bass-lines in both,  and the rather danceable tune, these two tracks are likely to be the most popular ones on the album – which explains Reznor’s decision to release them ahead of the others.

Came Back Haunted is accompanied by a David Lynch video, a visual journey whose staccato images, showing an eerie figure that is a cross between a humanoid and an insectoid, are as disturbing as the track is beautiful.

Find My Way follows, with clearly-defined background synths and exquisite piano-work, vaguely reminiscent of Reznor’s work on his side project How to Destroy Angels, and of his contributions to The Social Network soundtrack. However, as valid as it is, it pales in comparison to All Time Low, which I believe is the most intriguing offering on the album.

Twisted and accusatory, it is in the best tradition of Reznor’s most hostile work on The Downward Spiral – and yet, the sound itself is a definite departure from what we have come to expect of NiN. There’s more experimental electronica here, with a very distinctive (and, again, reminiscent of The Social Network) piano scale section running in the background. There is a definite new wave, pop feel to the sound – but this being Reznor, he manages to make even pop sound miserable, with lyrics like  “Everything is not okay; We lost too much along the way….. This paranoia turns to fear; This too is whispering in your ear”.

The album continues in the same electronica/synth vein with Disappointed, a track that, once again, squarely denounces humankind with the unequivocal “Do you ever want to; Just get out of here; So disappointed; Just disappear”.

However, Reznor’s disappointment in mankind is nothing compared to my disappointment with the following track, Everything. An upbeat, overly-catchy, cheesy tune with an annoying guitar riff that does not belong with the rest of the album. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is eminently radio-friendly and danceable.

Thankfully, Everything is but a momentary aberration and the second half of the album returns to the beautifully eerie, synth-punctuated mood created earlier. The album comes to an end with While I’m Still Here, whose mellow electronica belies the chilling lyrics, and Black Noise, a track that comes to a sudden and disturbing end with distortion and a hint of, ironically, white noise.

Hesitation Marks brings the listener to the edge and back. Although not really one, it can be called a concept album, in so far as all the work is tied together by the concept that life is a black, and often painful, affair, and by Reznor’s tortured introspection.

Comparisons to the earlier Hurt are inevitable, particularly when one considers that the name of the album, Hesitation Marks, is a reference to the initially tentative cuts made by someone who is trying to commit suicide, before they gather up the courage for the final act.

However, all is not the black abyss that it appears to be, as Reznor consistently recoils from the edge, bringing the listener back with him. A ray of hope that certainly points towards great news for Reznor’s personal life, as the musician seems to have stalled the downward spiral he was on. Whether it turns out to be equally good for his future creative juices is more doubtful.

An edited version of this review was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

 

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