“Thrive/Just become/Your disease,” Trent Reznor shouts on this record, across crusty electronics and irritated-guitar chatter in a song called “In Two.” Reznor is an excellent advertisement for that advice, a resilient, multiplatinum icon of feral machine music and lacerating self-examination. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Pretty Hate Machine, his debut as the founding singer-composer and main instrumentalist in Nine Inch Nails. But Hesitation Marks is an immediate reason to light the black candles. Reznor’s first NIN album in five years, it is one of his best, combining the textural exploration on the 1999 double CD The Fragile, and the tighter fury of his 1994 master blast, The Downward Spiral. There is blood here: Hesitation Marks refers to the preliminary wounds made during a suicide attempt. There is deliverance, too. You can dance to much of this terror, all the way to the brink and back.
“Came Back Haunted” is that dread, beat and savvy in a nutshell. Reznor has his formulas, and this is one of them: seething choruses of hiss and helplessness, then a perverse rush of triumph in the chorus (“I said goodbye and I/Had to try and I/Came back haunted”). The real devilry is in details such as the dentist’s-drill sustain of his guitar break and the Rolling Stones-like drive that Reznor maintains through the irregular, digital percussion. “Copy of A” has a spare, rubbery momentum, like impatient Kraftwerk, that gradually fills with a mounting crisis of loops, hi-hat sizzle and well-camouflaged guitar contributed by an improbable guest, Fleetwood Mac‘s Lindsey Buckingham. And “All Time Low” lurches forward on angular riffing by Adrian Belew as Reznor pushes his voice into a Prince-like falsetto. Everything in these songs happens on the edge of irrevocable oblivion. “You haven’t even pierced the skin/Just wait till you see what is coming,” Reznor promises (or warns) in “All Time Low.” But he is doing a lot of living on that precipice.
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Reznor – successful, sober and a father – never uses the word “suicide” on Hesitation Marks. But he has spoken publicly of his past drug and alcohol abuse. This album is about how easy it is to find yourself back in black, out of options (the ballad “Find My Way”), desperate for release (the hypnotic march “Various Methods of Escape”). “Do you ever want to/Just get out of here?” Reznor asks in “Disappointed,” a bit like recent Radiohead with a raga-like hook that suggests the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” – a sly comment on both surrender and rebirth.
Placed at the middle of the record, “Everything” is the perfect high noon, a straight-up rocker about transformation achieved. “But this thing that lives inside of me/Will surely rise and wake,” Reznor admits in there, an inevitability that dogs him to the last song, “While I’m Still Here.” It is a downbeat finish of dripping-water electronics. But Reznor also plays raw, honking sax, like he’s laughing at his own fears. There is also another step back from the cliff. “Stay with me/Hold me near/While I’m here,” Reznor sings before the track fades to static, with clear, quiet strength and no hesitation.