Before Nine Inch Nails went on what turned into a several-year hiatus, the group’s entire career could be seen as one long, tortured attempt at finding catharsis. Whether aggressive, industrial, razor-burn guitar rock, or ambient electronica, Trent Reznor’s music captured the tension of emotional frustration—a powder keg of carnal longing, sexual frustration, lust, paranoia, anger, hate, despair, disgust, and nihilism.
In light of NIN’s respite, it makes perfect sense that Hesitation Marks—the band’s first album since reactivation—focuses on making a clean break from the past; major lyrical themes include rebirth, starting over, and escaping the past. But in true NIN form, it’s not like these actions are easy or successful; the album’s lyrics express fear about keeping the demons at bay, worry about falling into bad habits, warn of ominous consequences from changes, and despair at being able to shake off old vices. Unlike much of the band’s older output, the endgame of these struggles is staying alive, not succumbing to the darkness.
Reznor has hardly turned into Mr. Positive; there’s plenty of disillusionment with the world on “Disappointed,” for starters, and resigned self-loathing permeates “I Would For You.” But this desire to stay in the light is so strong that one song, “Find My Way,” is an actual prayer to God for guidance and relief: “Pray the lord my soul to take / The ghosts of who I used to be.” For a guy who’s equated sex to cozying up to God and gleefully skewered religious zealots, it’s a bold move.
Hesitation Marks’ musical evolution is just as striking. While the occasional burst of harsh noise adds requisite menace—and “I Would For You” is a classic NIN slow burn with layered vocal harmonies and indelible hooks—live drums are almost completely de-emphasized, replaced instead by glitchy rhythmic twitches, snapping electronic beats, and percolating grooves. It’s a testament to the production team of Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Alan Moulder that Hesitation Marks sounds distinct from (and has more structural definition than) any recent soundtrack or musical-score work with that instrumentation.
On “In Two,” sparking electronic aggression gives way to a well-defined chorus bolstered by falsetto vocals, like a robotic TV On The Radio, before giving way to a static-laden buildup to abrasive noise. “All Time Low” is a sinewy glam-funk swerve with Adrian Belew guitars and a seductive vibe; the goofy “Everything” is roughly what The Cure would’ve sounded like on the Breakfast Club soundtrack; and “Satellite” layers creepy vocal whispers, Morse code programming, and searing electric guitar. Lindsey Buckingham appears here and there to add guitar work, although his presence is felt most in the faint sustained strums on “While I’m Still Here,” which also features Reznor playing saxophone.
That last song borrows parts of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Weary Blues From Waitin,’” a song weighed down by loss and moping about what could have been. It’s also an uncharacteristically fatalistic, hopeless song for Hesitation Marks, as it’s obvious on the rest of the album that the fear of living isn’t holding Reznor back anymore. This outlook has given a huge boost to NIN’s creativity, and helped the group re-emerge as a relevant, vital, and still weird band.