In Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor foregoes trendy flourishes. He might have delivered a set of competently-made, stripped-back industrial tunes. But the end result is monotony.
Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails. (Columbia)
How to Destroy Angels, the post-industrial supergroup comprised of Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, his wife Mariqueen Maandig (formerly of West Indian Girl), producer Atticus Ross, and art director Rob Sheridan released its debut LP Welcome oblivion in March. The album had plenty of good ideas, particularly its agile arrangement of frigid electronic textures and soundscapes. But, because of their gratuitously long track lengths, many of the songs meandered to the point that not even their adeptly crafted ambiance could redeem them.
Ultimately, Welcome oblivion felt more like one of Reznor’s film scores than it did a stand-alone album. Unlike his previous work with Nine Inch Nails, The material played by How to Destroy Angels simply didn’t demand the listener’s attention. Meanwhile, Nine Inch Nails has been mostly silent for the past five years – in 2008, it put out the ambitious instrumental project Ghosts I-IV and the sorely underappreciated The Slip, Reznor’s most taut, concise statement to date.
Hesitation Marks is the act’s eighth and latest effort, and it isn’t really a “comeback” album, as many are deeming it. Nine Inch Nails has taken five year breaks before, like the one between its 1994 classic The Downward Spiral and its 1999 epic double-album The Fragile. But, “comeback” or not, Hesitation Marks does feel as though it is intended to be a grand statement – right down to its cover art design by Russell Mills, who came up with the artwork for The Downward Spiral. But, sadly, this new LP does not match the greatness of the earlier masterpiece.
It’s strange that this album is so dissatisfying, given that Reznor seems to be in top form as a singer and producer on nearly every track here. His voice is absolutely electrifying on such singles as “Came Back Haunted,” “Copy of A,” and “Everything.” What’s more, the subdued “Find My Way” boasts perhaps his most breathtaking instrumental touches to date. It’s also refreshing to see a modern rock musician deliberately refrain from the cheap, manipulative frills of orchestral strings and horns – Reznor keeps the arrangements minimalistic, with traditional hard rock and electronic instrumentation.
Unfortunately, this minimalism becomes a double-edged sword. Like Welcome oblivion, nearly every one of the 14 tracks on Hesitation Marks exceeds the five or six minute mark. What’s more, because Reznor is determined to keep things so simple and streamlined, he rarely changes up the beats and the layers of sound. His additions to the songs as they progress are so slight they’re negligible. It usually comes down to him introducing a wash of murky synth or a creeping overdriven guitar part during the second verse to give the beat a bit more intensity than it had during the first verse. This is the case for the lead single, “Came Back Haunted,” which, despite its lack of complexity, is a potent fusion of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine-era synth-pop and The Slip-era industrial rock.
“All Time Low” is particularly reminiscent of The Fragile’s “The Big Come Down” because of its twangy guitar and Reznor’s falsetto vocals on the chorus. But, at nearly six and a half minutes, the former comes across as a longwinded version of the latter. “Various Methods of Escape” is also irksomely repetitive, though Reznor’s impassioned singing on the chorus distinguishes it as one of the disc’s most powerful pieces.
The only track that truly justifies its lengthy run time is “Disappointed,” whose turbid instrumental is given a thrilling, soaring build, mostly owing to its (synthesized) orchestral string part – faint and fleeting as it may be. Reznor indulges in frills again via a lovely piano coda at the end of “I Would for You,” another instance of a break in the album’s uniformity. “In Two”’s frenetic composition, as well as the tour de force vocal performance from Reznor, keeps things engaging for a while – until its protracted, droning midsection kicks in.
“Everything” is easily another album (possibly career) highlight thanks to its powerful, propulsive energy. It’s perhaps the only Nine Inch Nails track that could be described as “elated.” Reznor proffers a distinctively distorted, gritty foray into pop-punk that pretty much goes off without a hitch; however, his voice is a bit too front-and-center in the mix, which is true for every track, save for “Disappointed” and the tender closer, “While I’m Still Here.” (The “Audiophile Mastered Version,” which will be offered on Nine Inch Nails’ website, might not have this problem.)
Despite the imperfect mix and the somewhat repetitive synth programming and arrangements, every song here is written and performed well enough to be listened to and enjoyed on its own. The problem is that there is absolutely no reason for the album to be comprised of 14 tracks and clock in at over an hour. Listening through Hesitation Marks quickly becomes a chore; Reznor’s dedication to a sparse esthetic stunts his ability to compose compellingly dynamic pieces. This self-imposed artistic constraint should have inspired him to take more risks, such as on the kinetic “Everything.” Instead, he decides to mostly play it safe, with tracks such as the sauntering “Satellite” and “Running” offering nothing more than danceable, easy-on-the-ears electro grooves.
In Hesitation Marks, Reznor foregoes trendy flourishes, and he might have delivered a set of competently-made, stripped-back industrial tunes. But the end result is monotonous, often gratuitously so given the extended length of the tunes and their limited compositional palette. This is a tragic instance of more really being less.