When Nine Inch Nails split up (or went on the hip break up term "hiatus") a few years back it came as no surprise to me. Trent Reznor had, after a season of self repair in the early 2000s, moved away from his lifestyle which had provided decent material for songs but had denied NIN fans of regular music. Sure, Trent's health was on a slippery slope as well, no doubt, and on balance he might be dead by the time Hesitation Marks was released if he indeed continued to the bottom of his downward spiral.
It's difficult to not look back on his albums from a psychological perspective and see them for what was going on in his life at the time and it's for me plainly reflected in Hesitation Marks. Debut album Pretty Hate Machine found our protagonist launching himself at the world with a dark take on techno, borrowing heavily from Skinny Puppy and European synth bands he made that sound chart accessible and the stage was set for his commercially groundbreaking, wonderfully grim, breakthrough album The Downward Spiral that looked at a man on the verge of his end. Art imitates reality and the other way around. Who knows if Reznor was the guy he was talking about in the songs but without a shadow of a doubt, two to three years later he definitely was in a heroin hell trying to get something else out.
The Fragile eventually came out several years later and was a massive mess of sound collages; it had songs on it but everyone was wanting Downward Spiral 2 and the album was far from it. It took me years to appreciate it. It was like NIN's Sandinista!, a massive album that had three great songs on it but I now prefer it to The Downward Spiral. After The Fragile it seemed we would need to wait a long time for another album. At this stage Reznor was apparently an absolute mess health wise and mentally. Keep with me, I do have a point here!
So then at some point Reznor got a grip of himself and possibly hit rehab. Which was his and our bonus as he kept his soul and we got to have a guy still around making good music. So With Teeth came out around 2003 and was his most accessible music since The Downward Spiral. Since With Teeth the sober Trent has made around 5 albums before he called it a day and shockingly it didn't feel like a surprise because in a way it seemed he had burnt out his band with his new lust for life. He started a band with his wife which was ok and made a couple of brilliant Fincher soundtracks, one of them won him an Oscar.
So here we are with Hesitation Marks. NIN had never really gone, for it to be really away the so Trent would have to be. This album almost feels like Reznor's 'happy' album if you listen to it hard enough. Sound wise vocally it's more like his early classic album The Downward Spiral. The general sound of his later albums before splitting seems to have gone; which got quite grating. How could you describe it? Over produced computer music? Fuck knows. I liked to blame Atticus Ross or whatever the guy's called. "He's got NIN sounding fuckin' shite" I'd say to myself. That sound was extremely effective on the soundtracks though.
The break Reznor had from NIN seems to have been to the fans' benefit as I consider this album to be up there with his best. It's choc a block full of toe tappers and songs you can shag to. 'Copy of A', 'Came Back Haunted' (check out the brilliant David Lynch vid, watch it on mushies or LSD), 'Disappointed', 'Everything' (which fucking sounds like The Strokes if they were covering Gary Numan) there are less soundtracky, thematic type tunes on here than usual. Each song seems to be Trent reassuring himself that his life at this point in time is as good as it has ever been and everything, all the bad stuff he had done in the past is exactly where it should be, the past.
Production wise the album seems fresh but familiar. The art has been done again by Russell Mills who designed The Downward Spiral's cover. I have thought in many ways the album is like a mirror opposite to The Downward Spiral. Like an album about a guy who has recovered from his time down there and loves his life, yet under the wallpaper is all the bad shit. Always pushing himself and his sound with modern technology and what's at the forefront the album does have that processed sound yet still manages to have a healthy warm analogue vibe.
My fave NIN album is With Teeth due to the fact it sounds like a band in a studio rather a band in Reason, but I reckon Reznor finds a good balance here. The deluxe edition comes with three remixes. One from Todd Rundgren, Oneohtrix Point Never and Breyer P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle). They are all absolutely fab.
If NIN felt slightly obese at its end a few years back it has come back fitter, hungrier and better. Reznor's hero Bowie still makes great albums and I hope Trent keeps making them till he is old as fuck.