‘Hesitation Marks’ Nine Inch Nails
It’s been thoroughly scrubbed from every corner of the Internet, so you probably wouldn’t be able to see it now. But about two weeks ago, a Nine Inch Nails fan made a widely circulated video to accompany Everything, the band’s terrifyingly perky new song. The video featured a smiling Trent Reznor riding a unicorn, surrounded by rainbows and Pikachu, that most adorable Pokémon. It was ridiculous on its face – Reznor has probably never even met Pikachu, and there are no reported instances of him ever smiling – but it neatly summarized fans’ collective unease about NIN’s first new album in five years, Hesitation Marks.
Everything, a great, unashamedly poppy new wave song, dropped before anyone had heard the album in full, and it seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears – that, after a decade spent examining his misery from every possible angle, the ’90s god of Sturm und Drang had been made soft by the giant-slaying trifecta of sobriety, fatherhood and middle age. The song’s lyrics (Wave goodbye/ Wish me well/ I’ve become something else) did not engender confidence.
Everything, it turns out, is an anomaly (or Reznor trolling everyone, which seems less likely). Hesitation Marks is otherwise as grim as a reasonable person might have hoped for. It’s grand and disquieting, creepy and meticulously realized, minimalist and overstuffed.
The album serves as a great example of how a legacy rock star can grow older: Keep your defining characteristics and marry them to enough new ideas so as not to sound like a nostalgia act – but not so many that you sound as if you are chasing trends. The album is good enough to sidestep any questions sparked by Reznor’s return, such as: What does an industrial act represent in an electronic world preoccupied by dubstep and celebrity DJs? And if Reznor is no longer wrist-slashingly miserable and just sort of generally upset, does he even exist?
Hesitation Marks lacks a certain passionate intensity, as though Reznor made it because he thought making an album might be nice, but most great ’90s bands have come back weaker or not at all. It’s perhaps not a bad thing that Reznor’s misery seems more precisely calibrated than before; that he recognizes that the demons haunting Oscar-winning rock stars may also haunt high-schoolers, carpooling moms and recovering ’90s alt-rock fans.