Monday, October 14, 2013

Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks

Nine Inch Nails
Hesitation Marks
Reviewed by Antonio Staropoli
Rating: 5/5

When I was a kid and music videos actually played on MTV, I remember having a very vivid memory of the Nine Inch Nails video for "Closer." Mostly because the imagery was disturbing for a child, but it had a pretty catchy hook. Not to mention a generous use of the word fuck in the uncensored version. But it wasn't until years later that I was introduced to Pretty Hate Machine, the very first album/halo in the NIN collection. I played "Head Like a Hole" ad nauseam and became beyond obsessed with the cover of Joy Division's song "Dead Souls" on The Crow soundtrack. I finally understood why all my friends had at least one Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.

Since then, Trent Reznor has completed eight studio albums and worked on a lot of side projects, including the one that earned him an Academy Award for the score of The Social Network. So, naturally, there's a huge expectation for this award-winning artist, especially when there is talk of a new NIN album coming out after five long years. The last record, The Slip, had a very raw, minimalist garage-rock sound, relative to Nine Inch Nails anyway. One of the beautiful things about this “band” is that every album has a flavor and unique sound, but at the very core it's still recognizable as NIN. So when the first single, "Came Back Haunted" was released, I thought, what the fuck is this? I just couldn't process it as quickly as I would have liked to, but after a few listens I finally got it! I'm now being taken back to that time I listened to Pretty Hate Machine when I was a kid. This is an electronically heavy record with little Rock and Metal influence. So much so that I wonder if you can even categorize this as Industrial. A friend of mine even referred to it as Pretty Hate Machine without the hate. But that doesn't mean you won't hear that dark, brooding Trent Reznor undertone we know and love in each song. Some songs, like "Find My Way" and "Disappointed," may even have you contemplating what the least painless way to go is. This brings me to the title, Hesitation Marks, which comes from the term "hesitation wounds," used to describe the marks made by a blade prior to a suicide attempt. So what is he trying to say? There are a few ways this can be interpreted, but I'm more interested in talking about the material and how it relates to the title.

The first two songs that were written for this record were "Everything" and "Satellite;" each one with sounds constructed on opposite ends of the spectrum. He then had to decide whether to go with the guitar infused Poppy sound of "Everything" or the electronic-based and more layered sound on "Satellite." He clearly went in the direction of the latter. However, for the first time in NIN history, he was not the only one calling the shots. He worked very closely with Atticus Ross (How to Destroy Angels/The Social Network score/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo score) and Alan Moulder on the production of this record, which he claims was somewhat relieving. Yet, he still wrote and performed everything on this album to give it that authentic NIN feel.

The second single, "Copy of A," denotes an obvious humility in Reznor where he claims, “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy / Everything I say has come before / Assembled into something into something into something / I am never certain anymore.” The song begins with a simple synth melody accompanied by a bass/snare drum repetition a few measures in and then slowly layers on more ominous synth sounds during the buildup and chorus. Eventually, you hear something that really comes through in almost every song, which is a Latin-like percussive element that adds so much to an otherwise empty or standard dance rhythm. And despite the humble intentions of this song, the rest of the record is very much an attempt to sound like something different and new. This could be some sort of indication of an internal war Reznor is having with himself, but I'm just speculating.

Some songs seamlessly flow into each other while others end and begin abruptly, which kind of creates a roller-coaster of emotions that go from unsettling intensity to an urge to move on the dance floor (yeah I said it), to a terrifically dismal lull. "In Two" is the perfect example, as it embodies all of these qualities in one song. There's a conviction when he says “Yes / Yes, of course / It's gonna hurt,” an electro-dance tone during the pre-chorus, “Nature is violent / The nature of the beast is violent / You know that / And someone else / Another one that wasn't me, no,” and a calm while he whispers “I just don't know anymore.” All the while, a vocally melodic chorus “It's getting harder to tell the two of you apart” is really driving the song. The only anomaly that I still can't figure out is the saxophone part of the following song, "While I'm Still Here." It seems a bit forced and pretty out of place, and not just in terms of the song but in relation to the entire album. However, I'll let it slide, considering that the rest of Hesitation Marks has a well-defined and calculated sound, like that of the song "All Time Low," which exudes precisely the type of confidence and swagger I expect to hear in a NIN song. It carries a groove with the bass and drums that propel the song in a vertical direction. Then an equally groovy guitar melody, layered with synthesizers, provides both background dissonance and rhythm in the form of odd and sometimes unfamiliar sounds.

Every component of this record seems to be intended to provoke and stir emotion to manipulate the listener's disposition. It's a moniker of any Nine Inch Nails piece. But at the same time, it is a more commercial-friendly endeavor, which gives fault-finders something to gripe about. And the deluxe version offers little musically with its remixes of "Find My Way," "All Time Low," and "While I'm Still Here." Of course, these are essential to the avid Nails fan, but I found them to be decent at best---mostly just excessive though.

All things considered, Hesitation Marks provides a wide range of flavors from all over the NIN spectrum sure to please the musical palette, and a welcomed addition to the band's halos. It's obvious that Trent cannot move away from this band, no matter how much he tries to distract himself with other endeavors. He will always be trying to find himself and his way through the expression of the Nine Inch Nails outlet. And this record is the perfect example of how he has succumbed to that inevitable truth. Are these songs a reflection of Trent's “hesitation wounds” in accepting his fate as the voice of a tormented generation? Give it a listen. You be the judge.