Much has been made of the return of Nine Inch Nails after Trent Reznor called time on the project in 2009. He’s hardly been silent in that time, establishing himself, on the back of all those pay-what-you-want/free-download instrumental releases, as a soundtrack composer of some note and worth. There was also that other band with his wife, they were quite good/not shit.
But also let’s not forget that NIN had five year breaks between albums so “disappearing” for a couple of years, all the while increasing the worth of his own brand as something/someone not just moody but also serious is hardly a hiatus. Then again Trent’s always known the calculated risk, the orchestrated dramatic tension, the manipulated treatment.
Hesitation Marks sees him back on a major label for the first time since 2007 and is the first official release under the NIN name since 2008.
It is a good album – at times it is very good. It’s probably the best NIN record since The Downward Spiral (hey, and I say that as a fan of The Fragile and of the best of that glut of stuff that was all rehearsals for the aspiring soundtrack composing sideline). But how are you going to beat The Downward Spiral? Short answer: you’re not. And so Reznor traces around that but never comes close to bottling the creeping inertia, the ugly beautifulness, the beautiful atrocity.
Contrary to what Reznor probably thinks, the most important relationship in his life is not with Mariqueen Maandig, nor is it with himself. It is not with Charles Manson or Al Jourgensen or with Berlin Bowie or Seventies Eno; those shapes are still circled around, all of those things have been important – his presumed happiness (Maandig) is probably part of the reason he’ll never get back to the Spiral by the way. But the single most important relationship Reznor has formed is the one with Atticus Ross. That genius’ touch is all over this record – as it has been with a lot of the best efforts that NIN summoned post-Spiral and the soundtracks. Here – as has been the way a lot of the time – he’s the silent hero. He is the genius. Trent is the mouthpiece.
Other reviews will tell you all about the incongruous presence of Lindsey Buckingham, the cameo from Adrian Belew and more fine I-can-do-anything/everything work from Pino Palladino – but none of that is really important. Hey, it’s cool to hear Lindsey Buckingham any old time, the last decade has finally seen him appreciated for being a sonic scholar, an exemplary guitarist. Belew and Palladino? Sure. They’re guys that make you check out records – or can do. But here all of them are just textures, shapes, issuers of sound – they might lend weight, their names might. But it’s Reznor and Ross that you have invited you to this party.
Oddly, when it is trying to be a party (Everything) it’s at its worst. When it’s too aware of lapsing in towards self-parody (Various Methods of Escape/Running) that’s exactly what it does.
But when Ross and Reznor steer the ship around those past glories, following the path but happy enough in the wake, (Copy Of A/Came Back Haunted/Find My Way) you’re reminded that through a load of bad synth pop, industrial and goth metal derivations and some strange-but-totally-obvious Bowie-Eno-New Order-Depeche Mode-Pink Floyd hybrid Reznor-as-NIN has fashioned something (actually) totally singular. Something that – at worst – is thoroughly dependable too.
And this is a welcome return. And about as good as it could get from Reznor as Nine Inch Nails.
You hear traces of the soundtrack work – and to be honest I’d prefer he head back to that, ultimately. But this is better than just some hits collection with one or two new songs that never quite measured up with the best work. A fire, of sorts, was lit. And this is worth it for anyone who was ever a fan of the band. And if you weren’t…well, it’s a surprise that you’re still reading this far down.
About the best a NIN album could be right now. And so what if that means it’s not as good as the band’s best. The Downward Spiral is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of record. This will still deservedly make many best-of-the-year lists. This imparts no shame whatsoever. An imperfect drug? Yes. But good enough. Good enough.