Anticipation for the first Nine Inch Nails album in five years has been tremendous, especially since it wasn't supposed to happen. So, it couldn't possibly make up for that lost time, right? That depends on how desperate you've become in the band's absence.
Hesitation Marks starts off way danc-y, without the benefit of prevalent guitars that have provided the much needed industrial balance of classic NIИ records. Even debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, had enough volume and angst to level out tracks like "Ringfinger". A happy Trent Reznor is a good thing, for him. He may suffer no longer, but now (sometimes) his music does. Taking nothing away from him, as his film scores have been excellent. He is, without a doubt, a brilliant musician but it definitely feels like there hasn't been a proper NIИ since With Teeth or even The Fragile. Every artist has the right to evolve but fans are not obligated to follow along blindly. Former teenagers that grew up in the heyday of NIИ are bound to feel betrayed by the gradual departure from what made the band popular in the first place. Where is the anger? Ask the guy with the Downward Spiral t-shirt, he'll tell you.
There are some real glimmers of excellence like the frankly fantastically poppy "Everything" (easily the best song on the album) and "I Would For You". The former is as un-Reznor-like a song as one would have thought possible but it is truly excellent. The latter sounds like something from Pretty Hate Machine but with all the bells and whistles modern studio technology can offer. "Various Methods Of Escape" takes a bit too long to get going but when it does, it's a strong entry. "In Two" is also quite entertaining. The rest is bag of the mixed variety.
"Find My Way" seemed so much more intriguing in the live clips seen online, probably due to Reznor's intense stage presence. That intensity just doesn't translate on the recording. There are little weird moments, like in "All Time Low" as Reznor channels Prince for a bit of falsetto. At least there's an honest-to-goodness guitar riff on it. "While I'm Still Here" comes off as a bit of a self-indulgent outtake from The Social Network, as it didn't really offer anything terribly interesting to the ear. To end the album with two back-to-back lackluster instrumental pieces isn't going out strong.
All of what's wrong with Hesitation Marks is what it isn't: loud, angst-ridden, tortured. What it is is still a carefully crafted, multi-layered movement. The album works best as one large piece. But even then, it doesn't demand your undivided attention. Singles like "Came Back Haunted" and "Copy Of A" can stand on their own but it just feels like something is missing. "Copy Of A" itself is appropriately titled because of its similarity to classic Reznor, only it holds up like a Betamax transfer. For all the diamonds, there's plenty of rough to sift through. It's hard to tell whether or not this is the beginning of a renaissance or just a mildly appealing fork in the road. After the initial listen, the stylus is going to cause hesitation marks on vinyl from listeners questioning whether or not to fully give themselves over to this opus. It's Reznor's own fault for setting the bar so high in the first place. Let the hate mail roll right in.
Hesitation Marks will be released Sep 3 from Columbia Records. It can also be pre-ordered directly from the band's website.