By Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times
Nine Inch Nails
A simmering, claustrophobic aggression dots Nine Inch Nails’ eighth studio album, Hesitation Marks. It’s within the lyrics of the opening track, Copy of A, in which Trent Reznor’s narrator in typical breathy monotone describes himself as “just a finger on a trigger on a finger.” It’s at the center of All Time Low, when he orders an unnamed other to “get down on the floor/shut the … door.”
He’s a ghost on Came Back Haunted, recounting a trip to the other side where a mysterious “they” implant “something inside of me / Its smile is red and its eyes are black / I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”
On Running, which sounds like a Berliner minimal techno track, our hero confesses that he “followed you again this morning / Just close enough to feel you near.” He’s looking down from above on Satellite.
Hesitation Marks is Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years. In that time, former Clevelander Reznor, the group’s founder and sole recurrent member, has focused on film scores with collaborator Atticus Ross (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and his How to Destroy Angels project with Ross, Rob Sheridan and wife Mariqueen Maandig.
That work further proved Reznor’s range to adults and snobs who’d known him only from his angsty hits Hurt and Head Like a Hole. More important, they illustrated a musician whose talents with texture and musical construction seemed barely tapped.
NIN’s new music showcases a master programmer at the peak of his power, a creative brain so filled with circuitry that what he envisions he perfectly executes. Few electronic composers have engineered such an immediately identifiable sound. He builds tones that crystallize with a coldness but that can melt into liquid warmth in one quick measure.
It’s hard to argue with a creative mind who uses on guitar both Adrian Belew (King Crimson) and Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac). Reznor and his band on Hesitation Marks deliver buzzing, vivid mantras, and a few surprisingly accessible electronic rock songs.
The simple ascending and descending synth line that arrives in the middle of All Time Low shimmers within the darkness of Reznor’s melodrama. The synthesizer run then doubles, then triples, then quadruples until it encircles itself. It’s a magical moment, one of many.
While I’m Still Here is a minimalist jam with Buckingham on guitar, which sneaks in near the end. Nine Inch Nails has seldom sounded so sonically nuanced and patient — and the last few moments of the song are some of the funkiest Reznor’s ever made.
But lyrically and vocally, he is hardly nuanced. His humorless, monochromatic tone tempers Hesitation Marks with many shades of dry bummer. This is a man who reflexively falls toward darkness and pain, sees menace in everything and expresses it similarly.
How much self-flagellation does one man need to convey in his artistic life, and at what point should he think about heading to Nepal or taking a chill pill? His demeanor, mostly gruff and breathy, is an all-or-nothing proposition. He doesn’t have the vocal range to offer many surprises, and only due to the sheer force of his musical prowess do many of these tracks shine.
With all the sonic chaos — a new-wave flair on Various Methods of Escape, the experimental noise of Black Noise — the human tone in the middle remains consistently, frustratingly similar, like we’ve been eavesdropping on the same therapy session for too many years.
Hesitation is best when he messes with his voice. Came Back Haunted, a highlight, features gargantuan vocal arrangements.
Reznor would do well to open up the windows and let in some sunlight and fresh air. He long ago proved himself a master of musical dynamics. If only he’d pay equal care to the voice at the center of it.