“It costs ten bucks or go fuck yourself”.
A nice personable accompaniment for the album’s release from Trent Reznor himself. He’s obviously not terribly fond of the “pay what you want” system as championed by Radiohead… never mind Trent, thousands upon thousands of people will pay absolutely nothing besides a bit of bandwidth for it.
Anyway, the current state of music retail notwithstanding, this is NIN’s 8th release and the first since 2008’s ‘The Slip’ and depending on who you talk to, the first with any merit since 2005’s ‘With Teeth”. A lot of water has cascaded under many bridges in that time though. Reznor and co-conspirator Atticus Ross (who co-produced this very album) have become Hollywood darlings, winning numerous awards for their collaborative film scores. So much so that the very existence of NIN appeared to be quite nebulous and Reznor has surprised many with the announcement of this full length offering.
In a not unprecedented but certainly not common move, two versions of the album are offered. A “loud” master and an “audiophile” master, the latter apparently closer to the original mix with less limiting. As the audiophile version isn’t available yet, I’m dissecting the “loud” one.
Taking its name from the cutting wounds a potential suicide victim inflicts upon themselves while “testing the waters”, the album was offered with a variety of different artwork (depending on format), the CD version of which contains human blood! Given these macabre details, you’d probably assume that this is a dark, dark album… and you’d be right… mostly.
The album kicks off with the short, cheerfully titled intro “The Eater of Dreams”; a build-up of disquieting ambiance, clicks & pops and unintelligibly distorted vocals which segues into the whirlpool synth line of lead up single “Copy Of A”. Everything’s serene for a minute while the synth gurgles away by itself….then the relentless thumping beat crashes in and the album fires into life like a brand new engine desperate to take to the open road.
Any preconceptions that this record may have been rushed or haphazardly cobbled together are soon done away with. It’s absolutely sublime. The beats are pure and driving, the songs expertly conceived, and the arrangements have just the right combination of complexity and simplicity.
This album has benefited immensely from Reznor and Ross’ recent film soundtrack experience. Many of the tracks feature layer upon layer of strange, wonderful (and at times harrowing) sounds of confusingly mysterious origin. Melody is prevalent throughout and Reznor sings rather than screams for the most part. Unlike previous NIN albums there is little in the way of what I’d describe as “heavy metal” anywhere on Hesitation Marks. There are guitars, but they’re not at the forefront. They’re beautifully understated and used to great effect. The most “rock” moment is definitely the distorted electro-punk of “Everything” which features Reznor half crooning, half croaking “I survived everything!”. It’s a great track in itself and along with “Copy of A” makes a great selection for a single release.
The overall mood is difficult to describe. There are quiet moments, loud moments, happy moments, scary moments… but the genius of this record is in the way it manages to combine seemingly conflicting emotional states into an oxymoronic whole. The infectious beats, electro-funk, black lyrical content and myriad sonic textures cause a musical bipolarity within the listener which undulates back and forth with expertly controlled violence. It’s electronic pop music, yes, but pop music with a menacing and foreboding demeanor. Malevolence and desolation lurk beneath the surface at every turn. Flaming Lips, take note. THIS is the emotional response ‘The Terror’ should have elicited in your listeners!
It’s not all doom and gloom and self-seriousness though. There are more than enough foot-tapping, sing-along moments to prevent it from becoming a suicide inducing dirge. The two aforementioned singles are upbeat enough, “Everything” in particular has a real punk drive and energy to it. The penultimate track “While I’m Still Here” is fairly laid back and provides a momentary respite…. never mind that it morphs into “Black Noise” which ends the album on a particularly frightening note.
Besides the aforementioned tracks, one of the true standouts is “Disappointed”. Beginning with an electronic pseudo-afrobeat and a muffled vocal from Reznor, it quickly becomes one of the most sonically menacing yet catchy tracks on the disc. Reverberant layered synths build and build throughout the track to a hellish yet melodic crescendo and slowly recede to lull you back into your comfort zone.
“Satellite” is also noteworthy for similar reasons. Although it’s a little less confronting than “Disappointed”, it’s funky & groovy and yet there’s no shortage of strange and unnerving sounds that intertwine and evolve around the initially friendly and innocuous beats.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that there are no tracks that jump out at you and scream “timeless classic!” as say… “Hurt” or “March of the Pigs” do on ‘The Downward Spiral’, but this is possibly attributable to the immensely high quality of all the material on the record. As mentioned previously, a few tracks stick their heads up just above the rest but it’s a record of total and consistent quality.
Hesitation Marks is a triumph. The individual songs (and indeed the entire album) are not so much written as constructed… as if from blueprints for a musical superstructure. It’s pure sonic architecture and is the equal or better of anything Mr Reznor has accomplished to date.