I recently observed an MRI in which the patient requested Nine Inch Nails music during the procedure. The deep, thundering percussion of the imposing MRI machine merged only slightly off time with Trent Reznor greats such as “The Hand That Feeds” and “Terrible Lie.” The mechanical sound of the MRI mimicked the rich, industrial electronica that has become a trademark of NIN. With the long-awaited release of their first album in five years, I anticipated that their comeback would be fulfilling
Reznor’s latest Halo, “Hesitation Marks,” somehow doesn’t measure up to choice selections of his earlier work. The exception is the single “Came Back Haunted,” which adheres to Reznor’s auteur sense of musical suspense, drama and build. Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t parallel to the quality of that lone track.
“The Eater of Dreams” eases us into the album with Reznor’s trademark “Run Silent, Run Deep” sonar “ping” that overlays the deeper, almost animal murmur beneath. Unfortunately, this unique and interesting piece segues directly into “Copy of A,” which lacks impressiveness due to its shameless near-sampling of sweeping MUSE soundscapes as well as the monotonous repetition of the eponymous lyrics. The endless refrain “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy” lacks the playful sense of irony and satire requisite to play it off well. This track — as well as the entire album — is lost without Reznor’s usual scathing sarcasm and boundless angry-white-man rhetoric.
“Came Back Haunted” is the best track of the album. “Haunted” seems like it would be more at home as a hidden track on the superior albums “With Teeth” or “Year Zero.” Instead, this single is used more as a “bait and switch,” suckering fans into “Hesitation” without being representative of the album as a whole. “Haunted” is worth the money and well worth listening to until your ears bleed.
Beginning with “Find My Way,” one of the difficulties with “Hesitation” is that one song that legatos into the next would be effective if the album was purely instrumental. The song however does offer interesting Negro spiritual undertones, complete with what sounds like a railroad hammering playing faintly in the background.
“All Time Low” opens with what sounds like a better-produced version of Weird Al’s seminal original “Hardware Store.” The jungle-industrial beat is fun, but the monosyllabic staccato phrasing misses the mark, as does Reznor’s newfound Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince falsetto. The guitar hook is sexy as sin, but unless you listen to it with some high-quality headphones, you may miss the best nuances.
“Everything” sounds like an (early) Elvis Costello punk rip off of Buddy Holly. Retro indie pop is not Reznor’s calling. The definitive Reznor ping begins “Satellite,” only to be instantly shattered by Prince-reminiscent, falsetto self-harmonizing. Unlike his past albums, Reznor can’t quite get away with his whisper-talk-singing in a way that is as evocative as before.
“Various Methods of Escape” offers nothing new in style. The unmistakable punked-out electronic riff seems directly lifted from “Battery Acid” by Queens of the Stone Age, which is itself a tribute to Weird Al’s apparently inescapable “Hardware Store.”
“I Would For You,” on the other hand, echoes the devious Cylons from the reimagined TV series Battlestar Galactica: “All this has happened all before/And this will happen all again”; the closing classical piano is one of the few truly poetic quiet moments in the album.
Compared to the corpus of NIN’s previous works to date, “Hesitation Marks” fells lackluster and resorts to drone and trip hop in somewhat formulaic fashion. In the hands of another artist, “Hesitation” could have been a masterpiece for the modern-day Mozart. Unfortunately, the album never quite levels up to that desired outcome.
NOT RECOMMENDED: The long wait for the return of NIN doesn’t live up to expectations.
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