Monday, May 26, 2014

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks (2013)

T-Rez has lost his teeth. Still a beast to behold, but no bite.

I happened upon this statement when scrolling through my Facebook feed and I froze like a deer in headlights. You see, I’m a fan of everything Trent Reznor has ever done, from the 1990s stadium-touring industrial rock to his recent ambient soundtrack-work for David Fincher films. To me, he is Midas - I even track down his collaborations, remixes and albums he has produced for other artists, because everything he touches turns to sonic gold. I am a NIN fanboy and proud of it, so naturally I immediately leapt to my idol’s defence.

“He is 48 and has two little kids now.” “He wore a tuxedo and accepted his Oscar with a humble speech.” “NIN albums have always evolved stylistically from one to the next, and that’s why he is great”. And so on, frantically trying to make the point that Reznor is no longer the tortured and rebellious young rockstar who smashed guitars and keyboards to pieces on stage.  And that he doesn’t have to.

My friend responded that it doesn’t matter to her how angry Reznor’s music is, what matters is that it’s not as good anymore - it is uninspired, missing a certain spark. I felt I had just been put in my place. I realised I had missed her point and made some silly excuses. Made them because maybe, to some degree, I actually shared her sentiment. I had been in denial about the new album not living up to my expectations. So is there a problem with Hesitation Marks, and if so, what is it?

First of all, an album does not necessarily need to be compared to the artist’s previous work, but if there ever were a case where the artist him- or herself invites the comparison, this is it. The album artwork for Hesitation Marks was designed by Russell Mills, who 19 years before also worked on The Downward Spiral - the 1994 concept album about a man deconstructing himself, culminating in a suicide. Even the font is the same… The artwork itself and the association to TDS immediately conjure a sense of gloom, disrepair, rawness… The hissing and growling lead single of the new album is called “Came Back Haunted”… It’s as if the whole intent of the marketing campaign was to send a clear message: “Trent’s back, and he’s his pissed-off self again”. For crying out loud, even the album’s title is an allusion to self-harm.

Like Metallica’s until-The-Black-Album purists, Nine Inch Nails has its own share of fans who preferred Reznor’s heavier, industrial direction and feel indifferent towards his later work. And everything about the album’s promotion seemed to indicate that Reznor had chosen to delight this section of his fanbase by returning to his angry roots. But as people all over the world were halfway through their first spin of Hesitation Marks, they realised that they were instead listening to Reznor’s most upbeat and poppy album to date.

The sound of the album is less reminiscent of NIN’s Broken or The Downward Spiral (which were dense, screeching, aggressive) and instead is kin to The Knife or Kanye West’s Yeezus. “Disappointed” and “Running” are the songs that best exemplify the more hollow and sparse soundscape of raw electronica and sharp digital beats that Reznor has opted for. It should however be noted that the change of direction is not absolute and for the most part it is still recognisably the music of Nine Inch Nails. The climax of “Various Methods of Escape” - a highlight of the album - is a familiar Reznorgasmic bliss of guitars, synths, drums and eerie, contorted sounds that you can never quite put your finger on layered on top of each other.

But the album’s sound is still unexpected enough to raise eyebrows and no song did so more than “Everything”, thanks to which there is now an ever-present rainbow in Reznor’s discography of cloudy afternoons. “Everything” - which has been described as college rock, new wave or pop punk - is so inappropriately bright in its context it actually induces a cringe when Reznor’s vocals and the guitar kick in at the beginning of the song. Reznor has never really accepted the “industrial rock” label that NIN has been slapped with and prides himself on evolving stylistically and being open to new influences with each album (in the vein of Bowie and Eno, his idols), but “Everything” comes off almost as a provocation to the expectations of the fan base, a test to see what he can get away with.

You can sense there is a certain elephant in the room among the NIN fan base. It is well documented that Reznor struggled with depression and substance abuse until emerging from rehab in 2004, which also resulted in an increase in productivity (compare the periods of time between NIN’s album releases: 1989, 1994, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2008, 2013). He has described how due to his crippling perfectionism, producing new music used to be an agonising process for him that he approached with anxiety. He has since developed a more streamlined songwriting process, in part thanks to having a close and constant collaborator in Atticus Ross, whom Reznor can bounce ideas off of and who actually helps to put his songs together in the studio.

So what no one really wants to say out loud is that Reznor produced his greatest work when he was more troubled as a person. They wonder whether Reznor having consciously moved away from his soul-destroying perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail means that he no longer creates masterpieces, but only good albums, and Hesitation Marks is a continuation of this trend. His 21st century albums have received critical and popular acclaim, but deep inside, most fans probably admit to themselves that NIN peaked in 1999 with The Fragile.

So maybe Reznor no longer has the destructive drive he had as a young man. Maybe fighting with your demons does indeed result in great music. Maybe Hesitation Marks suffered from false advertising. Maybe the sound he chose for this album does not play to Reznor’s strengths. Maybe we are looking at his 1990s music through blood-red-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, Reznor has for the past ten years been making albums that are 7s or 8s, not 9s or 10s. He maintains a thoroughly pleasing standard and is still a beast to behold, but he does not bite.

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