In Nine Inch Nails’ self-flagelating songs, Trent Reznor lays bares his handle-with-care feelings to such an extent that even their titles can’t fig-leaf all the naked emoting.
“Mr. Self Destruct.”
“Me, I’m Not.”
Before you’ve heard a note, you know where the guy is coming from and you can only hope that it’s a place where the knives are hidden.
And so on NIN’s latest record, “Hesitation Marks,” it’s tempting to scan the track list and expect plenty more monotone scab-picking with tunes such as “The Eater of Dreams,” “All Time Low,” “Disappointed” and “Came Back Haunted.”
But midway through the album comes “Everything,” which announces itself with guitars that lunge forward like some captive, heavily fanged creature upon noticing that its cage door has been left open.
“I surv-i-i-i-i-v-e-d,” Reznor sings on the opening verse, stretching out that last word, elongating its syllables, savoring the sentiment it expresses to the extent that he practically licks it from his fingertips afterward.
“Wave goodbye / Wish me well / I’ve become / Something else,” he adds as the song hurtles by, as if it was attempting to outrace all those well-chronicled bad times by sheer velocity.
“I am whole / I am free / I am whole / I can see / Always here / Finally,” Reznor proclaims at the conclusion of it all in warm, reassuring tones, his words almost soothing, as if they had been scrubbed free of pathos by the sonic scouring pads that have been Nine Inch Nails records of the past.
The song casts all the tracks that come before it, as well as those that follow, in a different light, mainly by being a source of light on an album, and a career, often devoid of it.
It also puts everything else in context by being the rare brash, clipped, overblown moment on an otherwise understated album
Like the NIN records that have come before it, “Hesitation Marks” still reverberates with uncertainty and doubtfulness, a chilly sense of dislocation and irresolution.
“I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow / Always trying to catch up with myself,” he sings on “Copy of A,” a song that percolates rather than pummels, much like “Hesitation Marks” as a whole.
He grows a little louder a few songs later.
“Everything is not OK!” Reznor later thunders on “All Time Low,” adjusting the brim of his Captain Obvious hat during one of the rare times he raises his voice on the album.
That sentiment could double as the thesis statement for just about everything that Reznor has ever done.
From NIN’s first record, 1989’s “Pretty Hate Machine,” where dance music learned how to snarl, to the self-directed nihilism of “The Downward Spiral,” the most alternately bilious and beautiful record to ever sell 4 million copies, to albums that warred with addiction (“The Fragile”) and post-millennial Big Brother-isms (“Year Zero”), Reznor has been more about starting fires than putting them out.
But the difference on “Hesitation Marks” is that Reznor confronts all this unease not with fists clenched but with arms open.
“I’m running out of places I can hide from this,” he sings on “Running,” and that, more than anything else, is what the album is all about: coming to terms with that which Reznor once simply assailed.
This album is more about reflection than rage, and it sounds like it, with Reznor singing breathily, often sounding as if it was late at night and he was trying not to wake the person in the next room, over a spare electronic backdrop, a minimalist assemblage of digital pulses and throbs for maximalist emoting.
It’d be easy — too easy — to ascribe this shift in direction to all the life changes Reznor has experienced in recent years.
Since Nine Inch Nails’ last record, 2008’s “The Slip,” and the group’s 2009 tour, Reznor has gotten married and had two children.
He and his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, recorded and toured with their band, How to Destroy Angels, before reconvening Nine Inch Nails after a four-year hiatus.
But “Hesitation Marks” isn’t a case of him conspicuously addressing the demands of becoming a husband and father.
He doesn’t seem like a different man so much as a man who addresses that which concerns him differently.
In the past he raged with such focus, such intensity at his foils, be it rival musicians or himself, that you felt as drained as he must have when it was all said and done.
Now, there’s a sense, not of resolution, but of the steady, determined will to keep moving forward.
“I have been to every place,” he sings on “Find My Way.” “I have been to everywhere.”
And yet, his journey continues, no destination in mind.
Just enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts, even if the man behind the steering wheel still struggles to do the same.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.
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