By all appearances, Trent Reznor's life is pretty good right now. He's a married man with two young children, he's been sober for over a decade, he's won both creative independence and an Oscar for scoring The Social Network, and he's working with Beats By Dre and Jimmy Iovine to build a subscription service that could make Spotify the Friendster of streaming music. The Reznor of today — mature, muscular, stable, clean, and working closely with a major label boss he once clashed with regularly — is a million miles away from the one who became a household name as one of the most disturbed, debauched, and depressive rock stars of the mid-'90s.
Hesitation Marks, Reznor's eighth major work under the name Nine Inch Nails and the first to be released since 2008, is his way of reconciling the differences between the man he was, and the man he has become. It's basically an entire album about the nagging fear that you will ruin everything good in your life by falling back into old habits, or worrying that the new people in your life will discover the horrible parts of yourself that you've tried to bury.
Reznor isn't nearly as good as a lyricist as he is a composer, but the blunt, direct approach works well here. He sings about being literally haunted by his old self on two consecutive songs, and even when he proclaims, "I've survived everything!" on the uncharacteristically upbeat track "Everything," he goes right back to feeling paranoid that "this thing that lives inside of me will surely rise and wake." The album's climax is a song called "In Two" in which he imagines splitting his old and present selves into two separate beings, but then realizes with horror that "it's getting harder to tell the two of you apart."
If you're familiar with Reznor's back catalog, you're well acquainted with exactly what he's staring down. The version of himself that he fears most is the one that created his two greatest works — 1994's The Downward Spiral, and his 1999 double album, The Fragile. The former starts off manic and furious, but concludes with a trio of songs that may be the most chilling musical expression of suicidal ideation ever recorded. The latter, written and recorded in the midst of severe addiction and extreme grief, basically vacillates between powerless rage and clinical depression for two hours straight.
Like a lot of artists, Reznor has made some of the best and most enduring work of his career out of the absolute lowest moments of his life. This must be a strange thing to live with, particularly as a musician who is obliged to perform these incredibly painful songs again and again, even if the circumstances of his life have changed a lot. With this in mind, it's easy to understand why he walked away from Nine Inch Nails around the time he started his family, or why he'd need to make an album like Hesitation Marks — which deliberately stares down this dark past — before coming back to it.
Hesitation Marks comes full circle with Reznor's past in other ways. The album art is by Russell Mills, the artist who created all of the paintings made for The Downward Spiral and its related singles and VHS releases. The sound of the record, particularly tracks like "Copy of a" and "Satellite," call back to the synth tones and programming of Reznor's debut, Pretty Hate Machine. But as much as he nods to his past, the music is not a rehash of the old hits, and mostly avoids a lot of classic NIN moves. He substitutes aggression for tension, and evades cathartic song structures in favor of lingering on a vague sense of dread. Some of the songs, most notably "Disappointed," sound a bit like what Thom Yorke has been up to with Radiohead and Atoms for Peace in recent years — clattering beats, droning melodies, and cold electronic tones evoking a sort of existential discomfort and everlasting anxiety. The sentiment of the lyrics bleed through every aspect of the music, and the result is essentially an inverted version of a Nine Inch Nails album: Whereas Reznor once raged against betrayers and oppressors in the outside world, Hesitation Marks is the sound of him stuck inside his own mind, and lashing out entirely against himself.