I’ll confess, I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of Trent Reznor’s stuff. Sure, I liked Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine when it came out in 1989, but that was a lifetime ago. A whole ocean of beer (aka, college) happened between then and now. The only clear memory I have of that album, from back then, is that it was noisy with a lot yelling. Listening to it now, I realize that I wasn’t that far off. Har har har. Just kidding. It’s actually rather interesting. Great textures, topical tunes, with strikingly good lyrics, and a real effort at making a coherent song. Best of all, there’s some truly catchy tunes on there. But if push came to shove, I’d admit that I was more into classic rock (Boston) and hair bands (Scorpions) back then. What can I say? I was young, once.
But [insert favorite cliché about the passage of time here] and now I’m old. And, apparently, so is Trent. The new album, Hesitation Marks, is almost unrecognizable from what my beer-soaked and pheromonally-addled college memory tells me was a revolutionary sound. But my older, if not wiser self, can see a clear trajectory from Pretty Hate Machine to Hesitation Marks. One that is still edgy, clangy, and loud. I’m sure some purists will be disappointed that Trent doesn’t rip himself apart vocally on any particular track, or that his angst and youthful cynicism seems to have been replaced with an artist with a bit more depth. Oh well.
“Copy of A” is fun, with a synth-heavy beat, and pretty much sums up an artist that knows that what he’s really chasing is an after image of himself. Ah, those Glory Days. Following that up with “Came Back Haunted”, the next track in series, and I almost laughed. No, don’t get me wrong — that’s probably the best single on the album — but this album is his first in five years, and the pairing of those two songs puts a big fat pin right square into what it feels like to be a middle-aged man. Ah, Trent! It’s all downhill from here, my man.
The rest of the album is solid, with a couple of standouts, though nothing seems to be on par with the true chart-toppers from his past. But just as Pretty Hate Machine wasn’t just “Terrible Lie”, so Hesitation Marks isn’t just any particular song. I mean, 3/4 of Hesitation Marks could easily have been transplanted onto Pretty Hate Machine and I doubt anyone would have blinked. It’s still NIN, after all, and yes, that means something. And as a whole, this particular entry in the 20+ album NIN corpus is an eerie, ambient, techno-inspired moody trip. An altogether thoughtful submission. Nice work.
The album has few worthy packaging options to choose from. First up is the ubiquitous iTunes/radio mix — read: “loud”. Skip it. Happily, there’s an “audiophile” version is available (24bit/48kHz), with a “completely different” mastering (the discussion on Ultra High End is worth a peek), which adds a little bit to the dynamic range of the songs but does add quite a bit of depth and texture. Better cues, more integrated sounds, more separation — go with these cuts. Or, better still, compare — NIN isn’t charging any more for the high-res files! $12 gets the entire album in whatever format you want — or all of them. Interestingly, the CD with the digital downloads in every format is also $12. Opt for the cadillac package, and they’ll throw in a vinyl double-album pressed at 33rpms! These platters are 180g and super quiet. That vinyl+CD+MP3+high-res FLAC is $28. Check it out, here.
If you’re wondering what you might be getting in for, don’t guess. You can stream the entire album on iTunes if you need to dip your toes in. Or, just check out the Soundcloud stream, below.