Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks

In 2009, Trent Reznor announced the Wave Goodbye Tour and the end of Nine Inch Nails for the forseeable future.  I was lucky enough to see one of his last shows, co-headlining with Jane’s Addiction that June.  It was incredible, but it left me wanting more.  As Trent began to score movies, I gobbled up his soundtracks, hungry for something to fill the void that was left.  The Social Network was a masterpiece and the awards were well deserved, yet it still wasn’t Nine Inch Nails.  Five long years I’d waited for new material.  Then, suddenly, and on my birthday no less, Trent Reznor announced a forthcoming Nine Inch Nails album, recorded in secret over the last year.  Surprise!  Well three long months later, it’s finally here streaming on the web, and I’ve gone to town on it.

  1. The Eater of Dreams:  The intro.  It’s a lot like 999,999 in that it’s empty, it features only a few notes punctuating its vacuum, slowly growing bass, and noise before climaxing with a pair of glitched screams.
  2. Copy of AKicking things off with a steady, simple beat and lots of synth, it shifts and changes its instruments, adding high frequency blips while manipulating the undercurrent.  The lyrics foreshadow the recycling of past Nine Inch Nails material throughout the entire album, though it seems to me that there are fewer instances of self-plagiarism in Copy of A than most other album tracks.  The chorus progression reminds me of The Downward Spiral, and the way the chorus features only a tonal synth and drums is reminiscent of March of the Pigs, but that’s about it as far as I can tell.  As the song progresses, more and more instruments and effects are added, exploding three minutes in with fierce noise and chaotic percussion.  It stabilizes to the chorus, repeating its same mantra until abruptly ending.  Definitely a good song to hook the listener into the album.
  3. Came Back Haunted: The first track released from Hesitation Marks, I was initially unimpressed after a single play.  However, many many repeat listens have enlightened me to the brilliance of this song.  Simply put, it’s entirely an amalgamation of past Nine Inch Nails material.  It begins with Pretty Hate Machine style synth over a beat taken straight out of The Slip or Ghosts.  The low-passed keys of the first verse could have fit on The Fragile, while the bass below sort of sounds like a vacuum cleaner running in an adjacent room.  The hazy chorus is a blast of Mr. Self Destruct mixed with Ruiner and let to marinade in Terrible Lie though not nearly as grim or heavy on all three counts.  The distorted guitar in the bridge has the same tone as several tracks on the first half of The Slip, though they could just as easily be from With Teeth.  Finally, the excellent outro brings in another distorted Pretty Hate Machine era sounding synth, reeking of Sin, while the guitar at the end plays a progression straight off of the second disc of The Fragile.  Even the chant of “just can’t stop” is common lyrical theme throughout90s Nine Inch Nails.  It’s a greatest hits album collapsed into one song, and I love it.  Came back haunted? Came back perfect.
  4. Find My Way:  It immediately sounds like a leftover from Year Zero, with a very bassy beat and soft pads coming and going in the background.  It’s quiet and sparse, with a light piano motif entering in the chorus reminiscent of Something I Can Never Have.  The atmosphere builds toward the second verse and through the subsequent chorus.  The chanted vocals “I have been to every place / I have been to everywhere” through the end of the song seem to be a bookend to the end of I Do Not Want This, specifically the lines “I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere.”
  5. All Time Low:  Strange guitar effects and distortion lead into a track that plods along rather quite like The Big Come Down off of The Fragile.  The dissonant clean guitar rides above a funky bass beat, while the vocals transition into something that rather sounds like Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.  I don’t think it would be weird to say that it wouldn’t be out of place in a cyberpunk nightclub a la The Matrix.  It’s catchy, rhythmic, and dare I say, sexy?  It could almost be a spiritual successor to Closer; I certainly get those vibes from it.  Possibly one of my favorites from the album.
  6. Disappointed:  A single quiet stretched bass note repeats below throughout its duration.  It adds an electronic beat complete with bleeps and bloops that wouldn’t be out of place in a Thom Yorke/Atoms for Peace song.  Sacrilege, I know, but listen to it and tell me I’m wrong.  Acoustic strings are plucked and fluttered sparingly during the verses, coming to the forefront in the bridge.  The chorus features what I think is a violin or a cello bowed and fed through a distortion pedal.  It has a decidedly Eastern feel to it, with a solo Haegeum playing the verse melody during the bridge, joined by a flowing orchestra and guitars around it.  Probably one of the weaker tracks on the album, albeit better in the studio than live.  The acoustic Eastern strings are definitely a unique addition to the Nine Inch Nails catalog.
  7. Everything:  The most divisive song in Nine Inch Nails history.  The reaction from fans has been totally polarized, with the negative side being pure vitriolic hatred.  Professional reviewers seem split between being revolted, and praising the unfamiliar upbeat sound.  I, for one, am still trying to get used to it.  I was initially turned off by the major progression and overall poppy-ness of the beginning, but the second half adds slightly dissonant guitars along with the dirt and fuzz we all know and love.  The vocals there are also unique; I can’t think of another situation where Trent harmonizes with himself like so and they sound so joyously optimistic, it makes me happy.  The heavy noise and stuttering, relegated-to-the-back vocals of the choruses remind me a lot of Elliott Smith and Heatmiser, which is a strange thing to say about a Nine Inch Nails track.  Musically and lyrically, it seems to reference other tracks like Closer‘s falling leitmotif and Lights in the Sky‘s “wave goodbye.” This one will take some more listens to adapt to, though I must say it sounds better to me in the context of the album than as a standalone single.
  8. Satellite:  The other track that escaped the Greatest Hits sessions with Everything, it’s interesting to say the least.  My first thought was 80’s Michael Jackson, but it boomerangs its way around that style.  The beat is heavy, but the instrumentation is ever changing.  I love the sonar-like beeps that enter with the first chorus, and the spacey Fragile guitar that grows over them is just fantastic.  It’s very smooth and polished, almost fluid like.  The environment changes shape in the second verse, and in the middle of the song after a percussive but atmospheric lull, a slap bass appears.  The end comes back around to a decidedly Nine Inch Nails-style dissonant chord progression before fading out.
  9. Various Methods of Escape:  Another bass heavy beat surrounded by scratches and whimpers, it widens up at the chorus with electric guitars before the instrumentation switches to an arrangement very similar to Intriguing Possibilities from The Social Network score.  Is that a celesta I hear in the bridge?  Its accompanying percussive plucking sound was a staple of the band’s sound in the 90s, and I’m overjoyed to hear it again.  The synth pad that waves up and down over it is straight out of The Social Network, while the chorus/outro as a whole reminds me a lot Every Day Is Exactly The Same.
  10. Running:  Starting with a singular, urgent, galloping beat not unexpected of a song titled Running, it layers an odd unsteady sounding synth around the chorus, breaking into sharp dissonant guitars a la (With Decay) which lead to a verse of multi-tracked vocals and more varied percussion instruments.  It almost sounds like a xylophone and woodblocks, but I can’t be sure.  It stays relatively low-key as a whole, not building up as large as some of the previous songs.  The whole thing gives off clear The Social Network vibes, almost as if it were a discarded soundtrack piece to which vocals were added.  It’s also, at 4:08, one of the shorter songs on the album and definitely feels like it.
  11. I Would For You:  The opening bass reminds me a lot of a certain track in Doom 2, titled In The Dark which is always a good memory to project onto a new piece of music.  While not samples, the synth/guitar that flares during the verses adds a definitive industrial / machinery feel to the song, something that hasn’t really been heard since Reptile and I freakin’ love it.  The chord progression steers into The Fragile territory, adding a characteristically Reznor-like piano motif at the end.  While the entire album has been heavily reminiscent of older Nine Inch Nails work, I’m not complaining at all; this style has been missing for far too long and I find its return more than welcome.  This song is spacey, ominous, and mechanical.  A definite standout from Hesitation Marks.
  12. In Two:  Cross-fading in from I Would For You, it lingers quietly for over thirty-seconds before breaking out with a crisp beat and choppy vocals, once again harkening back to the stylings of The Big Come Down.  Vocoder vocals in the pre-chorus switch to straight falsettos for the chorus and I think it fits well over the distortion and fuzz.  Ambient scratches of the sort heard on Ghosts and The Social Network fill the space behind the main instrumentation.  Halfway through the song, the noise cuts out to near silence with only clean bass and quiet vocals, similar to a number of past Nine Inch Nails tracks (The Fragile, With Teeth, etc.)  The noise builds, ever so slowly before completely glitching out with dirty dissonant guitar and a pressing beat, cutting straight into the next track…
  13. While I’m Still Here: …which begins with another empty, slow, bassy electronic beat under call and response vocals.  The sparse instrumentation evokes a lonely feeling, which is literally echoed in the vocal melody.  The percussive background sounds heavily influenced by the simpler Ghosts tracks, while the chorus progression could have been lifted from Year Zero.  It’s apocalyptic but somehow optimistic.  The track ends with a bass brass motif (a saxophone? I don’t know my brass that well), another first for Nine Inch Nails, I believe.
  14. Black Noise:  The outro to While I’m Still Here, it seamlessly takes its predecessors optimism and subtly flips it on its head.  Noise quickly builds and builds before it simply cuts out, back into the vacuum.  It’s actually rather frightening.

It’s old, but new; incredibly familiar, yet oftentimes foreign.  I really enjoy the unexpected deviations the record takes, notably on tracks like All Time Low and Satellite, though they took a couple plays to really grow on me.  The beginning half of Hesitation Marks features a lot of longer, less varied songs, while the second grows more chaotic and unpredictable.  The foreboding turn at the end, while perhaps somewhat melancholic, is certainly welcome; there hasn’t been a finale so unsettling since Ripe (With Decay).  Like The Fragile, the songs are a scatter both lyrically and musically; the common tie throughout the record is the ubiquity of the bass heavy, electronic percussion.  Many of the tracks are quite long, but they wax and wane enough to hold attention.  Hesitation Marks is the first full Nine Inch Nails release since 2008’s The Slip and so my expectations were rather high.  I don’t think it would be unfair to say it’s their best work since The Fragile.  Wave hello, Trent Reznor, it’s good to have Nine Inch Nails back.

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