Album review: Hesitation Marks

“Presence in absence” is one of the enigmatic phrases that artist Russell Mills used in describing what he intended to suggest with his mixed-media works, thirty of them, specially commissioned to illuminate the new Nine Inch Nails album. It’s also an apt description of the music on Hesitation Marks, which his art accompanies (and whose title he suggested); a fitful and restless collection of songs, with the indefinable quality that belongs to works dealing with the there-and-yet-not-there. Mills elaborates:

[The artworks] are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred. They attempt to harness the chaos of a situation, of now, of the personal trauma, of the human condition, into a form that is coherent, a form that accommodates the mess without disguising it as something else.

This description could just as well apply to the songs that composer and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has written and co-produced for Hesitation Marks, which reflect his matured persona as a calmer, more assured individual while still confronting the dark personal past that inspires his songwriting for NIN. Each piece of music is a fractured and beautiful collage of noise, with the hallmarks of classic Reznor production techniques abundantly on display (deployed with his co-producers Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder lending their help, as they have for myriad Reznor-led projects). The album feels haunting and unnerving, exercising notable restraint for showing and then hiding its layers, building and releasing tension in the listener for its 62 minutes. On top of all that, it boasts insanely catchy pop song hooks with dance beats galore. This is undeniably the most exciting and rewarding album NIN has released in a long time, and without a doubt the most elegant sonic portrait of Reznor’s riveting inner battles since the exquisitely raw With Teeth.

Opening track “The Eater of Dreams” consists of ominous noises building one upon another. Unlike previous NIN album openers, many of which are also short vocal-less pieces that steadily build in intensity from silence, there is practically no recognizable instrumentation — only vaguely discernible snippets of voice distorted beyond recognition. It is a puzzling and disorienting opener, which leads perfectly into the emotional space of disillusionment and detachment framing the epic journey to follow.

The story proper kicks off with “Copy of A”, which debuted as the first song in the first spectacular show of NIN’s 2013 tour at Fuji Rock festival, Japan (under a fierce, awe-inspiring lightning storm). It is a delicately-constructed précis of the album to follow: all the elaborate vocal arrangements over unconventional song structures, all of the relentlessly driving percussive forces, primarily electronic… all of the album’s spirit is rendered here, in just over five minutes. Reznor’s reading of his bleak lyric is one of restrained horror; skittering vocal treatments and a driving beat indicate a situation that has spiraled out of control, where the protagonist feels he is doomed to follow a path he had no part in authorizing or initiating, and feels powerless to change. Crucially, this mindset is also the first step in the realization of a recovering addict — an inkling that one must eventually relinquish control over his or her life to a higher power.

Next in sequence comes the album’s first single, “Came Back Haunted”, which made a significant impact via the disjointed and indefinable music video directed by master filmmaker and sometime Reznor collaborator David Lynch. The dark minor-key stabs of guitar riffs subtly recall the recurring NIN motif of The Downward Spiral (reprised in several of that album’s songs, including the title track), and the self-reference is apt. The accompanying lyrics do not tell of a reluctant Reznor returning to the limelight after having shelved NIN for close to four years, as many have reported, but of a man attempting in vain to leave behind his life of addiction while refusing help. Most addicts simply don’t have enough strength to quit on their own, however, and relapse horribly as a result — this is the haunted past Reznor will refer to again and again on the album. All of the lies to himself and others he opines for are those entailed by hubris: he is fighting a losing battle to try and thwart his addict’s life alone. Reznor’s protagonist shouting “I don’t believe” is a twisted challenge to an authority he will soon have to place trust in, or else die. To escape its deathly grip he must find a way to “stop” his consumption in a way that involves more than his own force of will. Curiously, this is something of a precursor to the message of the lyrics from previous NIN single “Discipline” off The Slip, but with the added wrinkle of having been “haunted” by the failure of a previous attempt.

“Find My Way”, which also made its debut on the 2013 NIN tour of music festivals, is a moody prayer for guidance, featuring Reznor’s trademark solitary piano set in a blasted, distant landscape of ruined dreams and lost moments. The vocal’s gentle, sombre tone belies its underlying regret and grief for “all those things inside of me” that represent the persistent, ghostly past self, which tarnishes hope for solace in a new relationship. The mantra “dear Lord, hear my prayer” is a humble, vulnerable moment in the face of an unfathomable darkness that threatens to close in, unless the solace of a reassuring higher power can allay it. The final moments feature a sly, uncharacteristic guitar lick repeated on the left of the stereo mix — the first appearance of longtime NIN guest guitarist Adrian Belew on the album. They indicate perhaps a glimmer of redemption at hand for the protagonist.

“All Time Low” is unsettling in its glossy, impenetrable musicality (I can hear more of Belew’s distorted lead guitar set far back in the mix, amid the layers of other guitars and synths) when contrasted against the lyric portrayal of morbid fixation, self-abuse and co-dependency. The lyrics, full of shame for having willfully allowed the grip of addiction to gain a toehold, then encouraging a romantic partner to partake — a denial of every principle that the cleaned-up Reznor would hold — sound positively seductive and even triumphant when scored this way. The slippery electric bass line comes courtesy of ace session player Pino Palladino, who makes his auspicious debut with NIN, appearing all over this album. The music twists and turns though a psychedelic segment of arpeggiated synths, not fully grounded in a single temporal moment any longer as the protagonist’s ego becomes untethered.

“Disappointed” is my favourite of the new songs; NIN played it a few times on the 2013 festival dates and what immediately struck me, even more than the inviting groove, was its thrillingly bitter lyric — a dialogue that seems to pit Reznor against his inner critic (or possibly those in the world around him). Taking directly from the Ghosts I-IV playbook of bowed and plucked string instruments layered over top of a harsh electronic rasp, the studio version delivers even more ear candy than did the unusual sight of Josh Eustis playing a two-string erhu in live performances (played on the album by Autolux’s Eugene Goreshter). It makes more sense sequenced where it is on the album, instead of the second slot in the show — right after another brand new song, no less. The relentless grind of guitar noises from the song’s first half abruptly drop out in the extended outro, where bowed string instruments take over momentarily before being swallowed again in the morass of orchestration, which crests and falls and then starts to build again before falling mute.

“Everything” is a dance-rock rave-up, with soaring major-key harmonies overlaying a Reznor rant about getting locked in a frightening dry-out period, surrounded by piles of noisy guitar clatter. In terms of melodic immediacy, it has few parallels in the NIN catalogue. This is exactly the kind of track that divides Reznor’s audience along lines of pro-and-con, lovers and haters. The surface construction seems so obvious, so accessible and rooted in genuine pop hooks, that those who deny themselves these pleasures may dismiss it. Reznor would surely not have bothered to include it on the album if he didn’t think at least some fans would dub it the “worst NIN song ever”, which of course they immediately did. Yet the song leads down a very dark path, into harrowing ego-death and seclusion, with eventual redemption and rebirth. Reznor implies the harrowing physiological process of cleaning out one’s body of addictive substances by the “walls [that] dissolve” and “hands [beginning] to shake”. His final cry of “I am home, I believe” is the conclusion of having quelled the inner demons, thanks to the higher power summoned for its assistance. Yet Reznor’s voice is not without ambiguous emotion: what has this deal cost him?

With all the recent revelations of America’s surveillance-state wiretapping disaster, “Satellite” couldn’t be more timely. It’s a frightening parallel: the recovering addict’s need to constantly monitor their own actions, conflated with the state’s mission to spy on the activities of those whom it deems threatening. This metaphor casts the observant ego as a mere iceberg-tip hovering above the vast, uncontrolled id. Won in a hard-fought battle to maintain control, the sobriety Reznor found in the dark and lost corner he backed himself into can never be taken for granted, or allowed to slip, which doubtless must feel claustrophobic and oppressive sometimes. Throwing paranoid fantasies in along with the real-life horror for good measure plays on his addled brain struggling to ground itself. This song says all of that, with the added sheen of a funky electro track dressed with futuristic space-pop hooks. It is a catchy slice of danceable pop with a dark edge, and Reznor’s gift for countermelody beautifully ends the song on a cascade of interlocking vocal and guitar layers that fade out gradually to silence.

Whereas Reznor’s voice sometimes sounds more exposed and vulnerable on this album than it has for years, he also uses various lo-fi tactics to contrast this clarity and presence with some grittier, more distant and indistinct vocal textures. Perhaps the best use of this gambit is in “Various Methods of Escape”, where his singing (sounding like it may have been amplified through the end of a resonating plastic tube) during the verses throws the blisteringly clear chorus into sharp relief. Just when it feels like the track could escalate into the stratosphere, it all spirals into a tense and moody middle section before shifting back into gear at exactly the perfect moment. This is the kind of track that will be perfect for the live band to reproduce at high-octane energy levels on tour. Ironically, the subject matter appears to be Reznor giving up the stage persona that made Nine Inch Nails a phenomenon; “I’ve got to let go” is a plea to release the addicting power of performing with the band which, if allowed to rule Reznor’s life, can threaten his sanity.

The relentless tempo of “Running” underscores the creepy lyric, which describes a stalking presence (likely the addictive personality Reznor has by now accepted as his constant companion, even as a sober individual) and it looms large. It’s yet another highlight of the album, with delectable electronic textures under a fine melody. The breathless, syncopated line “I’m running out—”, repeated over and over during the claustrophobic breakdown towards the song’s end, brings to mind a trance state induced by meditation. Any escape this provides is only momentary, however. The concluding line, in a falsetto beautifully sung but also damning and taunting, is “I never get away”.

The last four songs crossfade into each other, a climactic suite that never lets up in intensity until the final note. “I Would for You” castigates the protagonist for buying into a false perception of reality that plainly contradicts the facts. “I only have myself to blame” he repeats, before pleading to change into another person unafflicted by his catalogue of shame. This suggests that reconciling the past with present is too painful, given new surroundings but remaining the same person inside. Wretched and remorseful, the chorus vocals give way to an instrumental solo, ending on a passage of distorted vibrato guitars overlaying a solitary piano, which dissolves into the infinite-delayed synth noises underpinning the next song.

“It’s getting harder to tell the two of you apart”, Reznor sings in warbly falsetto, then in counterpoint harmony, mediating a protracted and violent argument between opposing aspects of his protagonist’s mind on “In Two”. This breaks through the jaw-dropping robotic pre-chorus vocal, snarling through a tense bed of programmed drums and massive synthesized bass. Reaching a desperate point of resignation, the narrative plunges into near-silence for the quiet bridging segment where a chant of “I just don’t know anymore” builds into a flurry of whirling guitars, with a pulse of plucked bass and strings that finally breaks into the synthesized drum and Belew-led monster guitar finale.

“While I’m Still Here” cuts in suddenly, bringing closure to the saga with an explicit acknowledgement of mortality. Reznor has never before confronted death with this much clarity and focus in his songwriting. “Wish it didn’t have to end this way” he intones over the minimal drum loop, his protagonist letting go of paths not taken. With solitary life at its nadir, the protagonist places his faith in love. A frail, brittle guitar lick — courtesy ofLindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, a new face on the NIN guest list — and then, finally, a double-tracked baritone saxophone solo (another NIN first) have the last word. The closest cousin to this track might be the two closing songs from Year Zero, but the sentiment is far more personal and even romantic: “stay with me, hold me near… while I’m still here.”

As focus pulls away from the scene, “Black Noise” consumes all. It’s an abstract construction, pulling the loop from the previous song into a dissonant stack of chords orchestrated on swarming synths and abused string instruments, plucked, twisted and scraped, howling into the void and then just as soon silenced. Rather than the cathartic endings of previous NIN outings, which practically demand a pause for reflection on what you just heard, it only leaves you wanting to hear more… or to start the album from the top, all over again.

    __________

Thank you for taking the time to read my review of Hesitation Marks. If this intrigued you enough to want to listen for yourself, please order it at the NIN webstore (no, I can’t get you a copy, so don’t ask) — and it would do me lot of good if you could please tell someone you know about this blog. Share it, like it on Facebook, whatever. In case you don’t know, this blog’s goal is to examine the NIN catalogue in depth, song-by-song, and regular updates on that front will resume shortly. I hope to see you then.

—Botley Smith, August 25, 2013

PS: At first, I incorrectly identified Lindsay Buckingham as the guitarist on “Find My Way”. This has been corrected now that I’ve seen the liner notes!

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7 thoughts on “Album review: Hesitation Marks

  1. Hi there!
    Great post and I love in-depth reviews like this.
    I must confess that I was concerned when Trent announced this album but on hearing the tracks released so far, and reading your review, my excitement and enthusiasm for ‘Hesitation Marks’ is growing on a daily basis!

    Cheers

    TS

  2. after hearing the entire album, I’m going to buy it 4 times just to support the man.

    amazing stuff, go listen to “Various Methods of Escape”. It’s already in my top 5 NIИ songs of all time.

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