“I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow/ Always trying to catch up with myself”—this album is where Trent Reznor takes control of his musical identity the way he took the reins on the big bad record label situation for the last several years to prove he’s not a “slave” as he’s wont to say. He’s human after all; he wants to age gracefully while continuing to disturb people with noise. He wants to rail against something even if it’s just the stasis of maturity and complacency of being a rich studio genius. So he went out and collaborated with a real live band.
Hesitation Marks doesn’t fit neatly into any box. Despite the sparkling glitches of opening singles “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted,” it doesn’t boil down to a pop record. Reznor virtually never screams on it. And despite the presence of Adrian Belew and Lindsay Buckingham, it’s not really a hark back to classic anything, even if many people are comparing it to his most new wave-y debut Pretty Hate Machine. What Hesitation Marks does if anything is pillage the era Reznor ignored while he was trying to feed heavy metal to a computer, simpler drum machines on “Haunted” and acid-house 303 squeals on “Copy.” “Running” combines tinny clicks and pops with a smothering drone of a chorus. “Disappointed” undergirds Reznor’s muted yelling with some kind of orchestra that also sounds like a jet taking off. “I Would For You” alternates between palm-muted verses and a wavering Kevin Shields-style chorus. On “In Two” we meet an effective falsetto.
The only true outlier is “Everything,” an experiment in harmonizing that some have called Joy Division pop-punk. It’s just normal and hooky and jarring considering Reznor’s harmony-free history. It’s a little motorik, so that’s nice, seeing our favorite Nail stack dreamy things onto a driving beat. It’s being mislabeled as a pop song; that screwy minor-key chorus ain’t poppy.
If Marks is anything throughout, it’s sexy. “Satellite” plays like one of PJ Harvey’s crawling To Bring You My Love dirges, only funkier. Which is one way to beat the “dad-industrial” tag that I’m sure a chunk of his minions would pin on it. No other Nine Inch Nails record has been so mindful of dance and electronic trends from outside its own bubble, or the resurgence of many of these sounds recently. It’s a nice surprise from a radio-rock band returning to the majors without a guilty conscience for wanting to sell his art for $10.