For those of us who aren’t suicidal: hesitation marks (or wounds) are the cuts that you inflict on yourself in order to test, either the weapon of choice, or your will to actually leave this life. That said, it should be quite clear that Trent Reznor and his NINE INCH NAILS are in no way mentally settled, or even “happy” nowadays. Choosing this title for their surprising return is nothing but a well calculated statement from the boss himself. As one of the last survivors of the 90s alternative culture, Reznor knows what he’s talking about. Without glorifying anything: alternative rock used to be more than an empty shell back in those days. With vision and devotion, young musicians took their chances before music-industry crashed and established a very unique state of mind, rather than a particular genre. A state of mind which sadly turned out to be really deadly, autoaggressive and severely hopeless for many of its poster-boys. But here he is, one of the most desperate lyricists and artists of the 90s, Trent Reznor, and he’s not only as sober as possible. He’s married and a father, he’s nearly 50 now, he’s in good shape and he recently discovered film-music as a new medium for his oppressive soundscapes, including an Oscar for his work with Atticus Ross on The Network. The question seems legit: why did this man feel the urge to work again on another NINE INCH NAILS-record, despite all these positive developments? And could this album, in any form, step up to his work as industrial-rock’s pioneer?
In some way, Trent Reznor has always been the guy, who’s skin was a hint too thin for the business, although his appearance and aggressiveness told another story. The struggles of The Downward Spiral, The Fragile or Pretty Hate Machine were the struggles of a man who’s as sure about his ideals as he was unsure about his strength. Luckily for us, his ambitions used to defeat his fears. But it would have been a sheer parody if a new NINE INCH NAILS-record would have tried to reactivate this vibe. It is with great satisfaction that we can say: it doesn’t even attempt to do so. Hesitation Marks is surely one of the most positive records under this name – not meaning, that it is positive in a general sense. “I am just a copy of a copy of a/ everything I say has come before” states Reznor in the opening Copy of A, throning above one of those steel-cold beat-frameworks that are his trademark now. Yet again another straight-forward statement that goes out to all the sceptics who already feared that Reznor might adapt any of the contemporary electronic music hypes. A grim, sarcastic anachronism like Came Back Haunted even tops this feeling. It is with clear and focussed ambition that NINE INCH NAILS defoliate a whole lot of hits in the following – less noise, more pop, but always on the thin raft to madness; he can’t help it. – “Hey, everything is not okay” sings Reznor in the at times simply beautiful All Time Low.
Who did seriously expect Trent Reznor to come back this way, with some of his greatest songs since Closer? I didn’t. What makes Hesitation Marks one of his best releases ever is the simple fact, that he felt the urge to make it an actual NINE INCH NAILS-album – no ambient soundtrack work and not associated with his other project HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS. The difference is, that these songs are meant to linger through the ups and downs of perfectionism and you can hear the amount of effort that goes with it. The doubts and fears of letting yourself go as well as the satisfying greatness of unswervingly big arrangements and song-structures. Yes, these songs are big. And yes, this is pop music. These songs are the ambitiously constructed, aggressively open-minded, arena-sized bastards of the abysmal pop that NINE INCH NAILS-songs always were capable of when being in their best (and healthiest) shape. Similar to their creator, the songs on Hesitation Marks are exactly this: in best shape. PRISM, Snowden, XscoreKey – the unsettling voice and noise of NINE INCH NAILS has not become redundant yet, our times are still fucked-up, and so are we. With this album, we are invited to embrace these facts once again.