The last time I was in the US for a new NIN release, it was 1999. Before midnight, my then-gf and I waited outside our local Newbury Comics for the doors to swing open. There were a couple other nuts there and some sturdy lesbians waiting for the new Tori (also on our list). For a dedicated music fan, this is what you did. It was a time before leaks (Napster was just getting started), it was a time before we took music ownership for granted. It was also a time before musicians communicated so openly with fans. We hadn’t heard from Trent since “The Perfect Drug” (which I spent days tracking down with my confused father chauffeuring me all over town) and the Lost Highway soundtrack. It felt like ages. We wanted to get our hands on The Fragile before anyone else. We spent the rest of the night and early morning listening to that massive double album, barely making it to class. Even though I always say The Downward Spiral is my favorite record and NIN’s best, I secretly (and honestly) prefer The Fragile. Downward Spiral may be the best — it is violent, scary, desperate — but The Fragile meant more to me and still registers. I’m not that angry, confused and sad kid anymore. And neither is Trent.
Fans might be upset (“It’s not The Downward Spiral/The Bends/Parachutes/Definitely, Maybe/…Baby One More Time! Waaaahhhhhhhh!”), but if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years being a NIN devotee, the old school folks will come around and end up loving it. It always happens. We all grow up. Why should we expect Trent to stay mired in suicidal rage? He’s married, sober and has two kids (I know, when the fuck did that happen!?). He has an Oscar. If anyone would have told me this in 1995, I would have scoffed. He’s happier now and has control over his life, but those same demons still linger. They linger in me, they linger in us all. He’s channeled them here in a pristine package and it is the finest NIN experience since The Fragile.
If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, head over to iTunes and stream it before the release date. Let’s get this ride started!
1. The Eater of Dreams kicks off with see-sawing blips and bloops — then a creaking of a rusty wheel — and then everything becomes awash in dread. Trent always does a good job starting albums with a mood-setter. This is a marriage between the decaying gears and cogs of his earlier work with the digital soundscapes that he’s so fond of creating these days. A fitting thesis statement for an album that he’s using as a bridge to his past.
2. Copy of A is a driving dance party. It sounds like we’re floating in an isolation chamber, his voice echoing off the walls and getting lost in a thick electronic sludge. The intensity builds up with some classic trills and tinkles that are heard best with headphones (seriously, this is orgasmic) — one of my favorite things about Downward Spiral and Fragile were the new sounds, buried in the background, that you could hear on repeated listens — and the rave finally explodes with such clarity that I almost started to pogo dance in my kitchen. The bottom drops out suddenly and the low-end bass comes up to catch you on a nice meaty cloud. This song gets better and better with time.
3. Came Back Haunted was a perfect comeback single. If you’re a fan, you’ve heard it. Multiple times. If you’re not a fan, go listen. We’ll wait for you here. It’s classic first-single material for New Trent — fast, intense, a real collar-grabber — much like “Discipline,” “Survivalism” and “Hand That Feeds.” The lyrics say it all: “Everyone now reminding me/I am not who I used to be.” This is a full declaration of Trent 2.0. There is no going back. (Bonus geek-points for the very very brief Downward Spiral piano motif)
4. Find My Way begins with some breakbeat, drum-and-bass type shit, before the upper octave piano chimes in. My favorite NIN songs include this kind of delicate piano work, the rare glimpse of soft beauty under all the ugly. This could fit nicely on The Fragile, and for this I am grateful. His voice soars as he oohs and ahhs, the volume never getting too loud. There’s some harmonizing in there too. It’s a pretty non-ballad that is going to sound incredible in a packed arena.
5. All Time Low is a fucking FUNK FEST. In the same vein of his funk-doobiest shit (see: “Closer,” “Only,” “Kinda I Want To,” “Even Deeper,” “Into the Void,” “The Big Comedown,” “Discipline,” most of the shit on Year Zero), this is a stank bassline orgy (courtesy of Pino Palladino, D’Angelo’s bass man) complete with “hoo-hoo-hoooh“s and sexual breath intake. It ends in the stars with some pretty humming. There’s tastes of The Fragile AND Year Zero on this, which still confuses me (see: my favorite and my least favorite NIN albums, respectively). But so far this is an early front runner for favorite deep cut on the album.
6. Disappointed is a Radiohead song. Seriously, go listen! Trent must have also enjoyed Kid A and Amnesiac as much as I did, because he’s clearly channeling that blip-dee-bloop vibe on this. There’s even some nice “Lotus Flower” handclapping. But then the minor chord twangs and Wall of Dread guitars come flooding in and we’re finally in NIN territory. The ending is an overwhelming assault of beauty. It really is Radiohead circa Kid A, but with a lot more soul and humanity. And dread. Lots of dread.
7. Everything… well here we go. If there were ever a song to divide the NIN community, it’s this blast of cheery pop-rock (yikes!) goop. There are blasts of guitar and aggressive yelling, but at the heart of it, it’s a beefed-up Cure song. The guitar and bass are so peppy it is unnerving. Fear not: it is not so pop that it could be played on the radio, but once that drum-machine loop comes popping in, you’ll have a hard time believing this is the same guy singing about fucking you like an animal. Now let’s all pogo-bounce and listen to Smashmouth.
8. Satellite is the 2nd of two new songs written for the now-delayed Greatest Hits package (“Everything” being the other). This is another leftfield inclusion. It’s a song about paranoia (they’re watching!) and stuff like that, making it very Year Zero-ish. But it’s so much better. If Year Zero had more songs like this, I might actually enjoy it. It is so funky it hurts. It sounds like it was produced by RedOne or one of Beyonce’s or Gaga’s guys. Dat beat is so dirty I’m grinding my ass into my chair with such delight and relish. The doom guitars do kick in eventually, but that beat… man, that beat. Sorry Miley, but the real BANGERZ are on this record. This is going to be on my iPod for a very, very long time. Twerk it!
9. Various Methods of Escape starts off sounding like some of the non-NIN stuff that Trent’s been meddling with lately (see: movie scores, How to destroy angels_). But the trademark guitars bust in and then Trent starts singing in falsetto. It’s very pretty. Again, the beat and soundscape sound very Year Zero-ish, but those small details (jarring minor chords, the warbling, the whispering) give it just enough grit and humanity, veering it away from that polished sci-fi. The denouement is another ode to The Fragile. It glides along a pretty wave before crashing down with driving drums and guitars. Early contender for Fan Favorite on this album.
10. Running would make a great workout song, just in case that title didn’t register. It’s another funky exercise that gets seriously twisted and unnerving, with dueling whispers battling like the angel and devil on your cartoon shoulders. Minor key Fragile guitars jut in. Disembodied mantras. All over that slick as shit jungle beat that would sound at home on an early Bjork remix record.
11. I Would For You is pummeling. At first I thought it was a Watch the Throne b-side (kidding!) but it really is a heavy hip-hop beat. The lyrics hint at the new Trent: “If I could be someone else, I would for you.” Awww, that is just the sweetest. For the moment, though, that sweetness is buried underneath the glorious noise. This is the start of a near-perfect blend of mixing that lasts until the final song. Think of it as Part 1 in a suite. (and there’s more Fragile guitar, huzzah!)
12. In Two builds the atmospheric tension until you can barely take it anymore, and then just pops and completely drowns you in digital honey. The beat is HARD. The vocal delivery is sharp. This is aggression and angst. Like everything else before it, it remains funky. But this is much more jagged. To bring in a much-maligned rip-off band from yester-decade: this song sounds like what Orgy spent so long trying (and failing) to achieve. I know that doesn’t help the case, but if you listened to Orgy, you might understand. There’s a very deliberate sheen to the song, once you strip away the jagged guitars, the ambient noise. Again, the noise drops away for a classic Trent-whisper-over-white-noise intermission, before punching you right back in the face to remind you just whose house you are in.
13. While I’m Still Here is the song with Lindsay Buckingham, oh patriarch God of Fleetwood Mac. There’s also saxophone on it. So how’s that for a nice head-fuck. It starts off sounding like a How to destroy angels_ castoff (imagine Mariqueen singing this…) but then that familiar dread trickles back in. “Hurt” this is not. It’s not even on par with the hollow beauty of “Zero Sum” or “Right Where It Belongs.” It’s too human, too rich with humanity. Buckingham’s jamming is so unlike anything Trent has done before. It isn’t programmed, it isn’t precise. All that work on Sound City must have taken its toll on the old guy. Once the sax toots its way onto the track, you know the game is changed. There is a bubbling storm of dread underneath everything, but damn it if that guitar twanging and sax work isn’t the most human noise ever set to the NIN sound. One of the most interesting songs in his catalog, which is saying something.
14. Black Noise is an appropriate title for the closing song — which is just an extended finish to “While I’m Still Here.” We started this adventure with noise, and we end with noise. “Ripe (With Decay)” ended The Fragile on a half-measure, leaving the listener with an incomplete and uncomfortable sense of emptiness. This ends with bellowing dissonance, building up to uncomfortable levels before abruptly cutting to silence.
Trent said that he wanted to link Hesitation Marks to The Downward Spiral (which can be seen most clearly with the choice of artwork and throwback font), but I feel like it’s more akin to The Fragile. This experience isn’t as outright violent and sociopathic as Spiral. There’s highs and lows, points of beauty and discomfort. There’s organic flourishes (Fragile was full of them, planned and controlled as they were), there’s experimentation. It is a wonder that Trent is still trying to do things differently at this stage in his career, when he could just as well be perfectly fine doing Greatest Hits tour after Greatest Hits tour. I am so happy with this record.
Fanboy reaction: this is so fucking awesome. It’s been so long since I’ve been excited and enamored by a new NIN record. The past few have been good, but could have been shaved down to something better. This is an experience. It’s glorious and I love it. I only hope Trent decides to play more new stuff on the tour (I can’t believe I just said that). A+
Unbiased critical reaction (lol yeah right): this is a very good album. Maybe 4 out of 5 stars. It is up there with the better NIN albums. Granted, we will never get another Downward Spiral, but this is a very nice successor to The Fragile. It’s fresh, exciting and, above all, worthy to stand with the greatest in the NIN catalog.
Hesitation Marks is out on 9/3 via Columbia Records, in a bajillion different editions (deluxe, digital deluxe, audiophile). Buy them all.