I was introduced to Nine Inch Nails by my twenty something son, who is a massive fan. Like a lot of kids in their early twenties, the concept of the music is easily as important as the melody, harmony and rhythm. Here’s where groups like Nine Inch Nails rule. Fronted by musical dynamo Trent Reznor, the ID, soundscape, sheer style of Nine Inch Nails (NIN) has jumped the cult shark. And, with Hesitation Marks, NIN’s first mainstream studio (Columbia) album since 2007, the public’s going to jump all over this.
First up, the album is incredibly good — on musical and aesthetic levels. Each song is true to its American Industrial Rock roots, hard driving, rhythmically complex, melodically interesting, and recorded like an audiophile’s wet dream. The album is being released on Sept 3, 2013 in several versions. I reviewed the standard version, but it is being released in a deluxe set with interviews and remixes, and in a ‘Audiophile Mastered Version’. Love the standard digital version, but sign me up for the audiophile LP. I can guarantee the first full song on the album ‘Copy of A’ will be played at umpteen audio shows for the foreseeable future. Are you reading, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest exhibitors?
Both ‘Copy of A’ and ‘Come Back Haunted’ were released ahead of time, and give a pretty sweet taste of the full album’s style. ‘Find My Way’ and ‘All Time Low’ (nice Gamelan here) slow things down. Reznor can do a ballad, but standard ballads never sounded like this. No matter what Reznor sings — he could sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — there’s a hypnotic menace in his voice that cannot be taught. It’s a type of charisma that shines through his vocal chords. It’s why good girls like bad boys.
Hesitation Marks is no ‘two chords and an attitude’ album. You’ll be happy listening to Reznor and his gang rage through lyrics. Then you’ll get to ‘Everything’. The verse and chorus are a pretty straight ahead drive, then NIN does a 180 and gives us a pastiche of The Beach Boys and Lennon/McCartney guitar riffs. Yes, like all great pop songwriters (Stevie Wonder, Sting, Lennon/McCartney, Michael Jackson), Reznor can write a bridge (middle eight). Bridges are hard. Just listen to the amount of crap on the radio with a puerile verse followed by a daft chorus. The End. Yet, Reznor’s chorus’ can be profound. Listen to ‘Various Methods of Escape’ as an example. Once again, even when laid back, the Reznor voice implies some shit is about to happen. Hesitation Marks is not for the faint of heart.
A definition of the album title is ‘severe cutting marks, often caused by attempts to build up courage before attempting the final, fatal wound. Non-fatal, shallow hesitation wounds’.
The notes describe the writing, performance, and production by Trent Reznor. But, NIN is no one man band. Reznor is joined by his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross (the same team who composed the brilliant soundtrack to the film The Social Network), and some famous names from the session world that make up the balance of NIN. Oh, and Lynsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac for good measure!
As a recording, Hesitation Marks is special. The voice is placed naturally in the mix, and the macro dynamics are superb, but it’s the micro dynamics, the very quiet, subtle rhythmic electronic shifts that will test the best resolution of audiophile speakers. Cue ‘The Eater of Dreams’ , the 50 second creepy opener for that test.
Two of the biggest albums of the year, Yeezus by Kanye West and our subject are instructive about the state of the popular music business. The former was produced by a musical kindergartner with forty of his best friends, the latter is a concept album of pure art. There’s too much of the former and the latter is rare. Hesitation Marks is thoughtful from the artwork down. And, that’s what a real work of art should be. It transcends the music and gives the listener a feeling(s) that the artist has taken you on a journey, no matter how unpleasant. As such, there’s no manipulation in Hesitation Marks. Like it or lump it. I don’t think Reznor cares, either way. As he said in an interview on the BBC it’s ‘….frankly fucking great’. It is. Very highly recommended.
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