Pennsylvania native Trent Reznor returns this week with one of the best albums of his career, Hesitation Marks. Coming off a five year hiatus from the band, Reznor has started a family, begun a new band with his wife called How to Destroy Angels (their debut album was released a couple months ago), and recorded movie soundtracks for high profile films The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the former won him an Academy Award). One other major change was getting sober in 2005, and after years of already great music, it seemed like he was tired and just needed a break. All of these elements combine here to create one of Reznor's most mature and focused efforts of his twenty-five year career.
Nine Inch Nails have always been known for the ability to synthesize rock and technology by going from a whisper to a scream instantaneously. That happens here as well, but in more subtle ways, and with fewer histrionics. "Copy of A" is a great example of a song that glides and builds from moment to moment, and while it's a masterclass in programming, it also moves along effortlessly, showing just how well Reznor has internalized his craft and the ability to construct a song. This is followed by "Came Back Haunted", the lead single from the album--one of the catchiest and most insistent songs here. The fact that the David Lynch directed video came with a disclaimer that epileptics may be in danger of seizures might make it difficult for some to watch, but it's one of Reznor's best lead singles in a while, yet in a world with Miley Cyrus, he may have to keep working harder to get your attention. "Find My Way" follows with a sound that is generally more indicative of the album by melding softer keyboard lines and tuned percussion to a lightly throbbing beat. Here, Reznor find a seamless way to integrate his soundtrack skills and his industrial side into a passionate whole with tinkly piano lines and moody atmospherics. "Everything", serving as a mid-point palate cleanser, is noteworthy not only for it's brevity and buzziness, but also for being the first song this writer can recall that he has written in a major key, echoing his newfound cautious optimism.
"All Time Low" and "Satellite" address the more aggressive and funky sides of NIN respectively, while "Disappointed" is all clangy precussion and softer rhythms. While "Various Methods of Escape" is one of the most melodically tuneful songs here (and would make a good single), "I Would For You" and "In Two" are two of the albums best songs, coming late and showing how far Reznor's writing has come since the days of "Head Like a Hole" (Bow down before the one you serve/You're gonna get what you deserve). They are aggressive without hitting the button marked ANGER, and are followed by the most alarming song on the album, closer "While I'm Still Here". Notable in its quietude, this song plays like a mantra expressing Reznor's current mental state, and features a skronking sax riff by Reznor himself. There is also a bit of guitar noodlery courtesy of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham. In fact, Buckingham, along with guitar maestro Adrien Belew, appear all over Hesitation Marks. These might seems like strange reference points, but they integrate perfectly into the sonic palate Reznor envisions. There are also songs tucked within like "Running" that feature nobody else but Reznor (with the possible aid of a studio tech), and illustrate just how self-sufficient and talented this man is. Now in his early fifties, it feels like he is finally reaching his stride. Hesitation Marks is a mini-masterpiece sonically more connected to Pretty Hate Machine than anything else he's done, bringing his sound full circle. Here's hoping the next album isn't another five year wait.