A sonic architect in the true sense of the word, nine inch nails mastermind Trent Reznor has always done what he can to push his music and the tools he uses to make it. Which he proves once again with hesitation marks, his first album as nine inch nails since 2008’s the slip. But the problem with being a mad musical scientist is that not all of your experiments work as well as the others.
Given that two of the albums he made in the five years since the slip were the atmospheric instrumental scores he did for the movies The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it’s not surprising that much of hesitation marks (the null corporation/Columbia Records) takes an atmospheric approach as well.
Much of the album typified by such songs as “running,” “find my way,” “i would for you” (not to be confused with the Jane’s Addiction tune), and “while i’m still here,” all of which mix pulsating beats, incidental keyboards, and Reznor’s understated vocals, and are thus like the mellower tunes on nine inch nails’ 1994 album the downward spiral or 1999’s the fragile that provided brief respites from their more aggro tracks.
Even some of this album’s more forceful moments — “various methods of escape” and “came back haunted” — only use guitars as flourishes, and are mostly built with pumping beats and ethereal keyboard tones. But even with the six-stringing, though, they still mesh well with the aforementioned atmospheric tracks.
Were this the motif for the whole album, hesitation marks would stand as another great nine inch nails album. It would be kind of like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; a moody album from someone who isn’t usually that moody. But because of a couple of missteps, it instead comes across like R.E.M.’s similarly melancholy but ultimately uneven Automatic For The People.
The problem largely lies with the tune “everything,” a guitar-driven pop rock track that would feel more at home on a Foo Fighters album, and would then be the weakest and least interesting track on the disc. Similarly, though not as drastically, the hip-hop-esque rhythms of “all time low” and “satellite” would work way better if these songs appeared on the inevitable hesitation marks remix album. Here, they stick out like sore thumbs.
(While we’re on the subject of nine inch nails remix albums, there’s also a deluxe edition of marks that adds a bonus disc with three new remixes. But even here, things are uneven, as the Oneohtrix Point Next mix of “find my way” and the Breyer P-Orridge “howler” remix of “while i’m still here” put interesting spins on their respective tunes, but Todd Rundgren’s reworking of “all time low” gives that song an ill-fitting soul/pop sheen.)
In the end, hesitation marks isn’t a bad nine inch nails album by any stretch. Sure, it’s not as solid or consistent as the fragile or year zero, or even the slip, mostly when it eschews its atmospheric and mellow vibe and gets too pop or hip-hop for its own good. But when it does work, which is often, hesitation marks is another evolution in sound by someone who has, over the years, always pushed himself into new realms.
What do you think of this album (or my review of it)? Please let me know in the comments below.