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Always one to bare the hairline fractures of his eggshell psyche, Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor aptly titled his new record Hesitation Marks, referring to the test runs that suicidal depressives leave on their skin before the big show gets underway.
In addition to being at times mercilessly, honest and forthright about the short-circuits of his mind, Reznor is ever the one for melodrama. Considering his age (he was already 29 at the time of The Downward Spiral‘s release) this is actually refreshing. Irony rarely pays dividends in music, unless you actually possess a working intellect, which few artists do. So when Reznor talks about “an unending bottomless pit of rage and self-loathing inside [him],” you can scoff all you like but you’re dealing with a man truly at odds with himself.
Hesitation Marks, however, is the result of all the king’s horses and all of his men putting Humpty Dumpty back in the studio again. Resigned to the bottomless rage pit, Reznor said, “I’m happy that I don’t feel that way any more. I’ve learned to recognise…that I’m wired wrong in certain ways.” So what does a newfound self-awareness instil in a musician who’s spent the last two decades living in his head?
On Hesitation Marks, there’s no virgin sea explored. Even with private school boy Atticus Ross on the wing, the album plays the same cards as previous NIN efforts going back to The Fragile. The difference here is Reznor is more than ever using his encyclopaedic knowledge of production and penchant for avant-noise to serve the individual song. Hesitation Marks might be NIN’s least experimental albums since 2005's With Teeth, but it’s very far from boring.
From the paranoia-inducing, binaural opening of intro The Eater of Dreams, you’re in Reznor’s world. Copy of A crawls up your skin, Find My Way drugs you into a stupor, in Disappointed you hear your own bile coursing, Various Methods of Escape lets you soar, and While I’m Still Here serves as just the kind of unceremonious exit you’d expect of a tour through Reznor’s thoughts.
Every sound is meticulously crafted like a fine timepiece, the product of a once-broken watchmaker. You can hear the same sounds coming from Grimes or Death Grips, admittedly, but instead of engaging these soundscapes Reznor subverts them. Other artists of his ilk quiver as they hold the weight of their instrumentals on their shoulders, throwing it against the wall and mastering the stuff that sticks. Reznor is so precise and studied, he bends and manipulates these harsh, acrid, otherworldly sounds to his own fancy.
With his new objective outlook giving him the keys to his own psychic kingdom, Hesitation Marks is the first real invitation listeners have been offered to step inside Reznor’s kingdom for themselves. Everything from Year Zero up to now, from his collaboration with Saul Williams to The Social Network to How To Destroy Angels, has contributed to coaxing Reznor out of himself. It’s been a creatively lucrative process, reaping plenty of swag for Halo obsessives to add to their specially designated Reznor shelf. And much of it, besides perhaps the exam prep music of Ghosts I-IV, has been some of his best work ever. Hesitation Marks is no exception.