Nine Inch Nails Hesitates
Published on September 15, 2013 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

After Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails won the Best Metal Performance Grammy for 1992’s brutal and profanity-laced “Wish,” he jokingly said that his tombstone should read: “Said ‘fist fuck,’ won a Grammy.”

If the reviews for NIN’s latest album, “Hesitation Marks,” are any indication, he might want to add one more sentence: “Didn’t scream for almost an entire album, received critical acclaim.”

A lot has been made about the more mature, restrained sound that Reznor offers on “Hesitation Marks,” NIN’s first album in five years. When you’re a successful 48-year-old musician, a father and an Oscar-winning composer, it’s not convincing when your latest album rages about your misery.

But despite the accolades for “Hesitation Marks,” many of the songs tread familiar territory with less-than-compelling delivery. Some may say that Reznor is showing restraint, but the album’s title sums up much of the performance, which seems hesitant. It sounds as if Reznor’s attempt to avoid any sign of immature angst on the album excised some of the passion as well.

The album’s first two singles, “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted,” have the familiar NIN sound, but they’re a bit too predictable – even with the guitar work of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham on “Copy of A.” They mostly whet your appetite for classic NIN material.

These tracks lead into the heart of the album, which often recalls the more atmospheric moments of 1999’s “The Fragile.” The songs offer sparse, glitchy electronic sounds with Reznor’s voice often low in the mix. His vocal delivery is a major flaw with the album. He doesn’t need to scream, but for much of “Hesitation Marks,” the vocals have a droning quality that only help one song bleed into the next.

More dynamic vocals would have made things more memorable. It also would have better showcased his lyrics, which often focus on a past that’s been survived and charting a path forward. These lyrics seem sparse and undercooked when compared to previous albums.

It’s not until the seventh track that Reznor sounds as if he’s throwing himself head-first into a piece of music and fully committing to it. To his credit, it’s the most polarizing song on the album – “Everything.” This song worried some fans because it’s possibly the happiest-sounding piece of music ever released by NIN. “Everything” is a big, bright pop song with harmonized vocals.

Though I also wondered what the hell is going on, it’s the first moment on the album that my ears perked up. This isn’t a call for NIN to transform into a happy pop act, but the song offers something new and unexpected, which is what has made previous NIN albums so interesting.

Reznor, who has long infused his work with pop sensibilities (“Closer” and all of “Pretty Hate Machine” being prime examples), is simply showcasing those sensibilities stripped of dark and brooding trappings.

“Everything” leads into “Satellite,” which is a sleek, sexy song that grooves along. Unlike “All Time Low,” an earlier danceable track on the album, “Satellite” doesn’t cause the listener flash back to “Closer.” “Satellite” stands on its own. Reznor also throws us a surprise before the album closes by adding some saxophone stabs on “While I’m Still Here.”

Unfortunately, “Hesitation Marks” still feels like a transitional work. Critics may rave about Reznor no longer feeling the need to rage on his albums, but it’s only one artistic choice within a larger work. Those accolades ignore that “Hesitation Marks” only offers glimmers of places Reznor’s music could take us, which is disappointing. Clearly, he has the maturity and artistic freedom to take NIN any direction he chooses - there’s no reason for him to hesitate now.

J.K. Eisen writes about entertainment and the world around him. He lives in the Deep South. 

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