There’s a moment on Hesitation Marks, the first new Nine Inch Nails album in five years, that is positively startling.
Trent Reznor, a man who famously snarled he wanted to “[expletive] you like an animal,” sings a song titled Everything that’s … happy? (“I survived everything,” he sings over an up-tempo drum machine beat. “I have tried everything.”)
Wonders never cease.
It’s the closest thing to a ray of sonic sunshine Reznor and his collaborators (including Pino Palladino, Lindsey Buckingham and Adrian Belew) allow on this, the iconic alt-rock band’s eighth studio album.
But its very existence suggests Reznor, who stepped away from NIN in 2009 to focus on other projects, including scoring films, has decided life is better if he has this outlet available.
Although the darkness is somewhat tempered, this is still a sublime fusion of chilly electronic textures and seething human emotion, a blend few others have perfected with as much grace as the 48-year-old Reznor.
Working with producers Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder, Reznor unfurls one intoxicating soundscape after another, from glitchy opener The Eater of Dreams through to the roaring finale, Black Noise, unencumbered by the overly complicated narratives imposed on mid-aughts records like The Slip and Year Zero.
He’s still capable of excoriating himself — “If I could be somebody else,” he screams on I Would for You — but there’s a sense of calm beneath even the most angsty cuts here, suggesting that Reznor has made peace with his demons, or, at the very least, negotiated some kind of truce.
Put another way: Instead of evoking personal dispatches from the darkest depths, Reznor has found a way to harness the chaos fueling masterpieces like The Downward Spiral (which Marks evokes sonically in a few places) without succumbing to it.
That Marks feels familiar even if hearing it for the first time speaks to NIN’s pervasive influence.
Indeed, bands like Linkin Park or Filter have built entire careers in Reznor’s wake; “I’m just a copy of a copy of a copy,” Reznor sings early on — perhaps a knowing allusion?
But there is only one Nine Inch Nails.
If the satisfying, occasionally surprising Hesitation Marks is any indicator, Trent Reznor’s brand of carefully sculpted self-loathing will continue apace for years to come.