Monday, September 2, 2013

album review: 'hesitation marks' by nine inch nails

I'm going to say something that's borderline anathema to everything I stand for as a reviewer, something I never expected I would say and something I sincerely hope won't kill my credibility forever: sometimes, pure sincerity just doesn't work. Sometimes, it might be actually be the crippling blow that ends up throwing the entire album out of whack. And for somebody who has always prized sincere delivery in performance above most, this sort of conclusion is both enlightening and infuriating.

And for this unexpected revelation, I blame Nine Inch Nails.

Now let me make this clear, I don't think Trent Reznor's project is entirely without merit or is a 'bad' band, to say nothing of any of the slew of moral outrage that has been directed at the act over the past several years. My issues with Nine Inch Nails aren't linked to any aversion to their shock factor or their abrasive sound or the nihilistic subject matter (well, at least not entirely). As someone who listens to industrial metal acts like Ministry or Pain, I'm well-aware of Nine Inch Nails' impact on the industry as one of the pioneers of their genre.

And for the most part, Nine Inch Nails have earned that reputation, particularly in their instrumentation off of their first two LPs, Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, the two albums that cemented Trent Reznor and his band in pop culture and in the eyes of the controversy circuit. The themes, particularly those on The Downward Spiral, were steeped in an examination of depression and self-loathing, and it's not hard to buy the underlying very real emotions that inspired songs like 'Closer' or 'March Of The Pigs' or 'Hurt'. And coupled with Reznor's uncanny knack for fusing industrial sounds with surprisingly catchy melodies, it's no surprise that Nine Inch Nails built their cult of personality that would permeate goth and alternative clubs all over the world.

But here's the problem: it's clear from every album Reznor has released since that he is haunted by the success of The Downward Spiral, and his attempts to replicate its success in differing forms have never managed to work, partially because Reznor can never properly detach from his material to provide that additional context and weight that made The Downward Spiral such a deeply affecting, influential, and critically acclaimed work. 

Of course, that doesn't touch the other big problem with Trent Reznor: he has never been a great songwriter. I'm not saying he's terrible or not talented - far from it, he has a gift for crafting memorable hooks that most industrial acts wish they could have - but to say that his nihilism has long ago stopped being compelling is probably underselling it. Now that's not saying that he hasn't tried to inject it with some degree of variety, but Reznor has a bad habit of returning to the same themes and cliches over and over again, and it very rapidly commits the cardinal sin of any nihilistic artwork: getting really boring and repetitive really fast. Forget buying into the 'HALOs' or Trent Reznor's cult of personality (which I'd argue he hasn't really earned), I had a hard enough time getting through the Nine Inch Nails discography over my vacation as a refresher because Reznor's songwriting regularly found ways to get on my nerves in a serious way. And most of the problem comes from the fact that Reznor is selling every single line with complete honesty and sincerity, which makes some of the more cringe-inducing lyrics even worse. If they were delivered with the slightest bit of additional nuance or a hint of irony, they might be more excusable, but too often they vary between being infuriating and just embarrassing.

Now granted, it wasn't as if Reznor didn't try to replicate his success with The Downward Spiral, which led to seriously mixed results. The first attempt was The Fragile and Things Falling Apart, two atrocious albums where any of the limited subtlety that Reznor had in his lyrics was pitched out the window in favour of swaggering, self-serving bravado and terribly out-of-place acoustic instrumentation in favour of catering to the late-90s obnoxious brats that bought into Reznor's cult without thinking. Forget the deeper context that informed The Downward Spiral or the motifs and symbolism - no, let's go for greater aggression and shock with a quarter of the subtlety. Things did improve in With Teeth, which held a tighter balance between inward and outward aggression, but the lyrics didn't really impress and the instrumentation seemed even less controlled. It was also on With Teeth that we got the first hint of Reznor's political edge, which fully manifested itself on Year Zero, an album that would honestly require a full-length review on its own to fully unpack. For now, I'll say that there was a lot of interesting ideas toyed with on Year Zero, but the execution was muddled and ultimately I was left distinctly confused and unsatisfied with the whole endeavour (although the Green Day fan in me loves 'Capital G' for its sheer blunt Bush hatred).

And really, I can directly trace the lack of satisfaction with later Nine Inch Nails less to the lyrics (which for the most part I tend to give up on) to the instrumentation. Instead of using electronica to create the distortion and more jagged segments of his music, he's chosen to rely on these heavy, feedback-swollen guitars that might create an impressive wall of sound, but lack the control that made his songs really gripping to me. I've gotten to the point as someone who listens to harsh, abrasive music that raw walls of distortion just doesn't impress me the same way if the tune is seriously lacking (and more often than not on later Nine Inch Nails albums, it definitely is). That's also where I tend to come down on his 2008 album The Slip, which once again failed to recapture that tightness that made Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral so effective (to say nothing of the lyrics, which might be the most minimalist and slapdash work I've ever seen Reznor put on record). At this point, I'd have a hard time pointing to any of Reznor's work besides his moody, ambient pieces (Ghosts in particular, which is unfocused but does capture the appropriate atmospherics quite well) as anything I can recommend. 

But this is 2013, and Trent Reznor is 48 - surely his songwriting has evolved into something new, particularly after a five year hiatus from Nine Inch Nails, right? Surely there's something worth liking here on Nine Inch Nails' new album Hesitation Marks, right?

Well, believe it or not, there is. In fact, I'll go so far to say that Hesitation Marks might just be Nine Inch Nails' best album since their older days, both repairing the instrumental elements that have given them trouble and (finally) showing some interesting evolution in the songwriting. And while I can't say that it's an album I love or one that I will make any of my year end lists, it does show that Trent Reznor has finally started to figure out what makes his good material throughout the years work and blends it together into a coherent, reasonably satisfying whole. And really, considering the slow rise of industrial music towards the mainstream (both from hip-hop and the elements of darkwave that seem to be resurfacing), it's not a moment too soon.

Now, on the face of it, this album will seem like the typical Nine Inch Nails album, so if you're familiar with the basics of their sound, you're not exactly in for a surprise here. The points that made the difference for me are very much in the details, and the biggest one that stood out immediately was in the instrumentation. The electronica has once again risen to command the beat on Hesitation Marks, letting the industrial, guitar-driven noise mostly seethe in the background until it explodes at the appropriate moment, an element of real control and precision that has been missing from a lot of Nine Inch Nails' material throughout the past few albums and which was a real welcome change to see return. And furthermore, many of the electronic beats aren't these thudding, ponderous things, but stripped-down and brittle and borderline skeletal at points, which to me has always felt like a much better fit for Nine Inch Nails that the swollen lumpy electronics that Reznor favoured earlier (especially in the late 90s). 

To me, these are all precisely the right steps Nine Inch Nails needed to take - and not coincidentally, they're all steps that take him that much closer to the material of early Nine Inch Nails. But Reznor hasn't just made a throwback, instead working to incorporate plenty of the bleaker, moodier electronica that he worked with throughout the 2000s to reasonable success. And while I will say at points the production sounded a little overstuffed - sometimes Reznor could have afforded to ease back a bit on the glitchy, squealing electronics and let his tracks breathe a bit - but overall, it's a welcome addition that definitely enhances the atmosphere of some of the tracks (although that damned acoustic guitar pops up a few time for no adequately explained reason and contributes nothing). And gone too is Reznor's screaming - while he still gets loud, there's significantly more control on this album in comparison with the howling he did on previous albums - and believe it or not, it fits the album just fine.

Here's where we have to talk about songwriting and theme, and I'll come out and say it: this is Trent Reznor's most coherent and well-written album since The Downward Spiral. Yes, Year Zero had a lot of interesting ideas, but they didn't coalesce or come to a remotely satisfying conclusion, particularly not in the way Hesitation Marks does. For the most part (I'll get to the exception in a bit), Reznor's songwriting has turned away from the minimalism of The Slip into something a bit more literate and structured. Yes, Reznor will never be a great lyricist, but he nails the basic elements so effectively on this album that it becomes hard to care. This album also shows a return to a complete inward focus we haven't seen since (you guessed it) The Downward Spiral, which for me is another big positive. Sure, Reznor's accumulated quite the 'body count' in his more aggressive lyrics, but he has always been at his most compelling when he's struggling with his inner demons.

And on Hesitation Marks, the inner demon he faces is a crippling, paralyzing indecision regarding his creative path, between that of his early work and that of his more recent albums. The title of the album normally refers to the self-inflicted wounds by those who hesitate before slitting their wrists, and here Reznor uses it as a metaphor and an underlying theme for the entire album. And he's not just hesitating about diving into the depression that shaped The Downward Spiral, but also the outward-looking, often politically-charged aggression of his later work. The entire album feels like a distinctive intersection between the two - and fortunately, due to the more introspective nature of the album, we get far more of the earlier influences than the latter.

And really, it's a credit to Reznor's gift for hooks that he manages to make 'Copy of A' (a song reflecting upon the fact that his success now is just imitating greater works that came before, some of them his own, a paralyzing fact that haunts him on the next song 'Came Back Haunted'), 'Find Your Way' (a dreary song about how Reznor struggles with new directions, feeling that he's explored everything) and 'All Time Low' (a song musing on the paranoia and isolation of fame) still have some energy to attract the listener. But these tunes are intended as the preamble to the 1-2 punch that makes this album work: the songs 'Disappointed' and 'Everything'. The first is incredibly simple, but finally brings the mixed impacts of Reznor's nihilism to the surface in a way he hasn't done since 'Hurt' almost twenty years ago, showing that he feels that nobody can completely change or save the world - and that he might have just made things worse. But then comes 'Everything', which might just be the most stridently upbeat and radio-friendly song Reznor has ever written, a song where he acknowledges that he has indeed done everything, but his creative spark has survived and he can indeed do anything he wants and nothing can stop him anymore. If Hesitation Marks had ended on this note, it would have been a moment of triumphalism unlike anything else Nine Inch Nails has ever done and could have heralded new paths for the band.

Unfortunately, the second half of the album seems designed to punish Reznor for his optimism, because 'Satellite', 'Various Methods Of Escape', 'Running', and 'I Would For You' seem designed to throw the rest of Reznor's creative demons straight in his face. 'Satellite' triggers his political paranoia, 'Various Methods Of Escape' is a call for his hedonistic impulses, 'Running' taps into his despair, and 'I Would For You' targets the frail scraps of love he possesses that cynicism hasn't managed to quench. It's interesting that all of these demons seem to have surged fully-formed from the albums Reznor made after The Downward Spiral, and nowhere is this more present than on 'In Two', a punishingly unpleasant song that feels like the culmination of the slapdash minimalist songwriting from The Slip with the barely-controlled clumsy guitar-driven instrumentation from The Fragile, making the division between Reznor's inner and outer focus strikingly literal. And then the album ends with 'While I'm Still Here' (which seems like a concession that this internal division within himself is never going to go away) and 'Black Noise', a swelling of industrial distortion and squealing electronics that show that, indeed, nothing is going to change all that much. 

And really, what other note would I expect a Nine Inch Nails album to end on? Reznor is a nihilist, and unlike previous albums, his honesty and blunt sincerity plays a good role on Hesitation Marks. I should have expected the downbeat ending. But on the other hand, like with Year Zero, it doesn't quite fully create that dramatic payoff that it could have had, showing a new direction for Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor to take. But on the other other hand, maybe that's all part of the point as well - the hesitation marks that define his indecision to choose early on the album between inward-focused depression and outward-focused aggression also frames the inability to move onto a new path. 

So in the end, we're left with an album that feels distinctly 'static' (and not just talking about the rest of the album), albeit with strong leanings in the direction of Nine Inch Nails' stronger work by virtue of the instrumentation and lyrics - and I guess that's enough for me to recommend this album. If you're a fan of Nine Inch Nails, particularly their earlier stuff, I recommend Hesitation Marks. If you're a fan that likes their later material, particularly their moody electronic material, I can't guarantee you'll like this album as much, but it's still worth a look. Everyone else... hey, it's Nine Inch Nails. If you know anything about this band, you should know what you're getting into.

And you know, come to think of it, I guess I don't have have to throw out my belief that pure sincerity and honest songwriting aren't good things, because those helped in a big way to make Hesitation Marks work.  They just need to be paired with material that works with it, and it's nice to see Reznor finally figured that out.

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