A recent claim from AJ Maddah, an Aussie music industry mogul, accused Trent Reznor of declining to appear at Oz’s Soundwave Festival because he was in search of a more ‘sophisticated audience’. If this is the case, then Hesitation Marks makes a lot more sense, for indeed it is in many ways a more ‘sophisticated’ and complex listen than the noise and bludgeon that defined Nine Inch Nails and ‘industrial rock’ in the 90s. A more pertinent question is whether NIN’s newfound swagger is actually better? Not on your life. But Hesitation Marks is, at the very least, definitely worth talking about.
The clues were in the tracks that trickled out beforehand; opener ‘Copy of A’ builds layers of percussion, swelling and releasing, with Reznor’s vocal lamenting his own sense of having done it all before. It’s a great track, one of the standouts on the album, but it also highlights one of its major flaws. Reznor’s vocal appears almost nonchalant and uncommitted at times. It’s probable that he was trying to match the subtle, electronic flourishes that each track is built upon but there are moments on this album where he ends up sounding half asleep. It also renders tracks that have plenty going for them as mere filler, such as ‘While I’m Still Here’, in which it’s questionable whether he actually is or not. When he does loosen up a bit and give his lungs some exercise he’s still got it, though; ‘I would For You’ has a climactic chorus that wouldn’t have felt out of place on The Fragile.
However, NIN are famed as much for their appreciation of a good pop song as their angst-ridden noise-fests; it’s what helped them bring industrial out of the underground and into the mainstream in the first place, and Hesitation Marks doesn’t disappoint in this regard. ‘Came Back Haunted’ might be familiar territory, but it’s got an irresistible bouncy rhythm that serves to get the foot tapping nicely. The funky stomp of ‘All Time Low’ is surprisingly reminiscent of the Pretty Hate Machine era except it’s less heavy; and by heavy I mean less saddled with Reznor’s youthful rage and far more playful. ‘Satellite’, meanwhile, has a maddeningly catchy R&B groove that’s, playing like a sinister lost Prince track from the 80s. Yup, Hesitation Marks has plenty going for it and NIN are far from out of ideas. Unfortunately, though, the album derails spectacularly around the half way point when the ill-advised indie-pop of ‘Everything’ kicks in. It’s easy to see that Reznor was attempting to strike an ironic pose with this track, but it jars horrendously amongst the overall moodiness of the rest of the set.
Is Hesitation Marks a worthy return for NIN? Most certainly, and it’s probably the best collection of tracks they’ve put together since With Teeth, eclipsing both Year Zero and The Slip. Reznor is almost sure to find his sought-after ‘sophisticated audience’ (oh can’t you hear the bitterness in my voice as I write those words?) with this album; if you’re a fan of modern electronic and Reznor’s soundtrack work you’re likely to eat this album up, not to mention if you’re one of those fools who proclaimed Ghosts to be NIN’s best album. Those of the trench-coat and eyeliner-wearing persuasion, on the other hand, will have to face up to the reality that Nine Inch Nails v.2013 have more in common with The Knife than Skinny Puppy.
Overdirve Rating – 3.5/5
Words – Paddy Walsh