The evolution of Trent Reznor has been well-documented. From the severely depressed and drug-addicted idol of the 90s to today’s sober family man with an Academy Award in hand, Reznor has slowly risen from the descent that nearly destroyed Nine Inch Nails. Trent admits that 2013’s Hesitation Marks is a revisiting of that person from 1994 and sets up an exciting theme for hardcore fans. Overall, the album is an overwhelming success, especially with guest spots by the likes of King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, but not all seemed to be headed in that direction early on.
With the tease of several new tracks for Hesitation Marks well before its release, the album appeared to be on a collision course with disaster. “Came Back Haunted” was a generic, uninspired track with amatuerish lyrics even for Reznor. The song instantly fell near the bottom of the NIN discography. A video collaboration with David Lynch for the track gave hope to something fresh and new, but the result was a tedious recycling and repetition of boring images. Nothing, however, could prepare fans for “Everything.” The second track found Reznor leaving the genre all together in an effort to put a NIN spin on a pop song. Maybe the track is an abhorrent attempt by his new major label to exploit Reznor’s existing fans in a attempt to gain radio play and an increased fan base. Anyway you look at it, this hybrid between Foo Fighters riff and a boy-band-of-the-day chorus is the low point in a quarter of a century of genre bending and innovation.
Fortunately, and surprisingly, these teaser tracks did not represent the quality of what remained. Reznor’s remaining 50+ minutes could possibly represent his strongest output to date. “All Time Low,” Reznor’s most original and exciting musical direction since The Fragile, calls out to Let’s Dance era David Bowie. “Satellite” is a club-friendly thumper about an ominous big brother type figure that harkens back to Reznor’s best remix tracks. “In Two” is Reznor’s obvious revisiting of The Downward Spiral. From the similar sound of the scream-like synths and soft acoustic breakdown of 1994’s “The Becoming,” it’s almost a mature sequel to the standout track. Throw in the guitar work from the legendary Lindsey Buckingham, and Reznor has officially driven NIN into new, reinventive territory with an eye on what has earned him past praises.
“Running” solidifies Hesitation Marks‘ status as one of the year’s best with an off-the-rails, jungle beat that sounds derived from an out-of-tune xylophone with a BPM sped up three times over. A perfectly detuned screeching melody plays on top several times throughout the track. The origin of the sound is difficult to pinpoint, whether it’s a guitar riff with heavy effects or a supremely distorted and layered synth. In the end, it represents everything that The Knife’s new record should have sounded like. “While I’m Still Here” and “Find My Way” represent the calm but excellent downtime on Hesitation Marks, which does not feature many of Reznor’s signature instrumentals. Both spend their moments in an eerie soundscape, while Reznor softly and genuinely contemplates past/future and completes his therapeutic revisiting of the 1994 classic that both created and destroyed him.