Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Nine Inch Nails "Hesitation Marks"

(GUEST REVIEW BY ARVO ZYLO) (Polydor) In 2009, Trent Reznor claimed that his hugely popular, rags to riches and fully deserving, multi talented and both classically and primally charged "alternative industrial metal etc" band, Nine Inch Nails, was over.  It surprised a lot of people.  This being a "brand", 25 years strong, that has sold tens of millions of records, including the quadruple platinum selling The Downward Spiral in 1994.  And then the ringleader threw up his hands and gave up the circus.  He left a major label to try DIY distribution, promotion, and two somewhat off-the-cuff, relatively risky albums from 2007 to 2009.   Fast forward to September 2013, and a new record Hesitation Marks had been secretly completed between side projects with Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig, (How To Destroy Angels) and two huge movie scores with long time collaborator Atticus Ross.  It could be said that it has become a trend to put out "surprise albums" without any hype or huge build up.  David Bowie did it, Beyonce did it, and I'm sure Kanye West is thinking about it.   It's still odd to picture Reznor in this framework, a guy who almost released a pretend snuff film that his music would be the soundtrack to, who now has won an Oscar for his soundtrack work, some Grammys, to say "fuck you" to the Grammys after they cut his song short and ran a commercial over it, to still see this person whose band would throw their own puke at eachother in the past continue to become so successful in the internet age, is still a bit bewildering.  
While initially Nine Inch Nails was a dictatorship of Trent Reznor with some seemingly hand picked jobbers, it has gradually become a more democratic entity with real collaborators and real hive mind input.  Maybe even a full fledged band with longstanding, maybe even almost "core members", which can be tricky to a guy who writes such highly personal/fearless self-examination type material, I imagine.   Initially, Nine Inch Nails owed two tracks to their former label Interscope records for a greatest hits package, and the two produced were the funky paranoia track Satellite and the alarmingly upbeat Everything.  These being two very different songs, to Reznor they represented two different directions to go in that had a similar root, and it became necessary to revive the Nine Inch Nails umbrella with these stems as a catalyst.  Some time in that process, in came Adrian Belew of King Crimson, and Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction, but both of them essentially said Trent was too intense and left.  What survived does include contributions from Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, Pino Palladino, (who has apparently worked with The Who) and Atticus Ross, who has been around since his old band 12 Rounds was signed to Trent Reznor's now defunct Nothing Records label in the 90s, not to mention Alessandro Cortini, who has been around since 2005, and may have helped spur the choice to integrate modular synthesizers into the mix (he uses a Buchla Music Easel, whatever that is).
The new album saw a return to major labels, this one being Columbia Records rather than Interscope, and is said to have been inspired by certain moods and energies permeating The Downward Spiral era, with the same cover artist to boot.  The Downward Spiral signified a deep dive (further) headfirst into drugs and alcohol that went on for another 7 years or so, but also to sum up, it is an angry, yet resigned, desperately immoral and self immolating record that only at happenstance turned into one of the biggest meal tickets in music history.  Hesitation Marks  surely arousing suspicion about a "cash in", or a cynical money-grab reunion tour; the kind that aging music fans either cling to in light of distate with current music hybrids, or shrug at and lament.   He's famous, but he doesn't seem like the type do "dynasty-ize" himself like Jay Z.  Upon first listen, that could have easily been the impression for a lot of listeners.  There are a lot of Nine Inch Nailsisms whose molds were broken or discarded on this album, namely that it is coming from far more of a tapestry of electronic dance music, early hip hop, and minimalist funk at times, but even in trying my darnedest to discard preconceived expectations, I find myself thinking that the lyrics to almost half the songs are just kind of a jumble of eeked out emotional cues and recurring themes that regularly feel like randomly contradictory afterthoughts.  
All Time Low is probably the most glaring example of this.  The verse is rejecting someone and the sources of paranoia that they brought in, the chorus is asking them to come closer.   The result is a confused tone and a succinct case where the minimalistic and sparse, theoretically germane and dense in its framework, becomes meandering and ineffectual in overall execution.  And in general, when Reznor got straight in 2001, he just started doing verbage for verses instead of delivering them with a musicality.   Vocally, the listener often sits through utterances until the chorus comes, with hope for the deliverance of varying degrees of redemption.  
Everything is another idiosyncratic song for the band, an upbeat pop-punk indie rock type number in a major key with a positive overtone that starts with "I have tried everything / I have survived everything".   It is perhaps so surprisingly upbeat that someone, maybe a fan, made a youtube video cartoon of Trent Reznor riding a unicorn through rainbows to this song.   It could almost be an Arcade Fire song, but in this at least, I'd say the lyrics are sincere.   On one end, you can't blame a guy for living in a self contained corporate rock bubble (in LA) no less, but even the most sympathetic listener must wonder how the hell Trent Reznor became someone who would like the Foo Fighters enough to even try to sound so similar to them.  
The album starts off with a minute long synth instrumental that is sufficient in building tension, and then kicks into Copy of A; a swarming time signature spitoon of richly compelling rhythmic electronics, and maybe the attempt at a blank slate reuppraisal within the lyrics "I am just a copy of a copy of copy of a copy; I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow" etc etc, "everything I've said's been done before...  ...I am never certain anymore"  ...  I am a robot, blah blah blah...  not the most endearing song to kick off an album...  and then we gallop through the percievably half ass chorus :
Look what you had to start
Why all the change of heart?
Well you need to play your part
A copy of a copy of a
Look what you've gone and done
Well that doesn't sound like fun
See I'm not the only one
A copy of a copy of a
So if someone can decipher what this is supposed to mean, the depth I'm missing, the poetry of it, feel free to chime in any time.  However, and not to come off like I'm intending to trash the whole thing by any stretch, for those of us who are long time fans of Nine Inch Nails, it has never specifically, necessarily been about the lyrics, although sometimes they are quite apt, perhaps even moving, if almost childishly, audaciously simple.  That said, the strongest songs on here, Running (the only one where Reznor played all of the instruments himself), Various Methods of Escape, I Would For You, Came Back Haunted, and Find My Way, the ones that mix up concepts about being lost and also looking for escape, to disappear, the search for completion vs. companionship, to move forward without looking back, but also not forgetting about/repeating the past, which could be quite painful, are the most landmark geographical points on the record.  The absolutely wizardly use of echo,  nimble, hair trigger climactic, ectoplasmic ambient sounds bring the songs to a close.  The guitars work to take something past the finish line rather than hammer you in the head with it.  
These songs often seem to be the ones where the lyrics were written first, and then the music/vocals came later.  Other times, it seems to be that phrases are just being made up over the top of music that sometimes borders on the generic or interchangable.   In that sense, regardless of my qualm with the lyrics, the record has a cohesive, theatrical vibe to it, where each song together paints a full picture, but definitely an abstract if not conflicted one.  And it's kind of nice to have these concepts be presented as a part of a very pivotal point in the singer's past, but also as the mirror reflection of it in present day; the overlapping similarities and the opposites between the same troubled person 20 years apart.  
Reznor wrote a review of David Bowie's The Next Day in the Hollywood Reporter, and said that he was initially confused by it, that it was "sonically conservative", but after many listens, he came to find that each song is a portrayal of a different person, with a different story, and it has a wholeness that makes David Bowie continue to be a genius.  The Next Day being an album that no one I know in real life likes, and that The Wire said was, in so many words, profoundly mediocre, and a testament to the fact the proper PR and the right timing can sell anything.   I gave "The Next Day" a couple more listens, and now, strangely, I'm beginning to enjoy the cryptically simple and understated, occasionally agonizingly pedestrian pub music with shortened vocal phrases.  It's like being served a ham sandwich from the best chef in the world.  But I am starting to see that dialogue, and stop wishing the Bowie used his voice to full potential, so that I can pick up subtleties from calculatingly successful megastars.  Whether I will end up liking it or not is yet to be seen, but maybe this came out in time to inform the new Nine Inch Nails record.
The musical crux, the glue of the Hesitation Marks, began with Reznor messing with a drum machine in his office, without anything else to augment it, and trying to expand on the excitement he felt in quickly composing patterns that change with pad adjustments and layers, where he could keep variations on a "groove" and felt no guitar or any other instrument was needed.  This is essentially how hip hop and house music came about, and it's definitely admirable to start from scratch in this way and excavate something organic out of it.  There was a real push to be minimal, according to the interviews.  The bonus track deluxe itunes version of the album contains a 42 minute message from Trent Reznor where he discusses how the album came about, and even airs some unfinished skeletal bits that never made it to the finishing process.   They mixed direct line electronics and treated / live mic noise elements that were intended to make the empty space become a spring board for things to come alive over synthetic loops.   The "demos" sound at times like they could only be the musings of a bad 20 year old techno artist, but at other times there are nice percussive xylophones or synthesizers coming in to make the listener almost yearn to see what might have happened if it were finished.  So again, for me the real thing to marvel at is the way some of the drum patterns develop, change and breathe within a given song, as they relate to the other music elements.  Fans of electronic music or just electronics, even if they don't like the music itself, could still marvel at the richness of sound that these expensive vintage modular synthesizers produce on nearly every song.  
At the end of the day, it is an album that at first feels thrown together, and at other times the listener can just sit and listen to the little sounds that whiz around the stereo spectrum, with quaint little ambient bits and psychedelic synth arpeggios, even if it's a song that only 15 year olds would dance to.  Upon first listen, I immediately put the songs into my computer and made a playlist where I cut out the songs that at that time were so irksome that I couldn't bear to hear them, and the playlist was about 38 minutes long, including the remix of Find My Way by Oneohtrix Point Never, which is so good that I'd say it eclipses the thesis that the original provides.   Later on, I revisited the songs I didn't like, and liked them maybe a bit more, but when I put on the vinyl edition, everything changes.  All of a sudden, the songs put me in the studio with the band and make me feel the energy, the fun, the organic and free flowing ecstatic process of making an intricately dynamic, upbeat song, even if the lyrics are usually, ostensibly driving at least a slight bit of slapshot formulaic gloom redundancy. There is what sounds like a haunting choir in a couple of the songs that only truly comes out with the "warmth" of analog.   What is it with the unspoken doctrine since the beginning of time that anyone would ever want to dance or bob their head to songs about being depressed and/or heartbroken?  Whatever it is, it does seem a bit awkward for Reznor to do full fledgedly, but it is something I've adapted to with music in general, so why not here?  And the guy does have to shed the expectations of myopic, crogenically frozen metal heads following him around. The songs are much more propellent on vinyl, and I'm not being one of those "audiophile" super geeks.  This is probably the most effectively mastered album for vinyl that I've ever heard.   And the aforementioned cover artist, Russell Mills, truly does deserve another round of mass hysteria, especially full size.   His work is mixed media with varnish and nails, found object, collage, metal work, sand paper, earth;  It is a dadaist approach to spirituality and emotional range, if I have to simplify it.  It is absolutely essential to remark about the art in terms of writing about this album.  Mills has evolved exponentially since his work on The Downward Spiral, and it's almost as if the evolution of the cover artist and the musician needed to coincide with this collection.   
Reznor has 2 kids named Balthazar and Lazarus, he's married to a beautiful woman who is also talented in her own right, he's got a mansion that's probably $35 million and paradoxically, he's still bipolar and a former heroin addict.  An underlying theme is that things don't get magically fixed just because you're rich and famous.   Hesitation Marks, which is apparently a term used for people who almost slit their wrists but don't quite get the job done, maybe does paint that picture about imperfections.  "Everything is not okay", despite the success narrative.  Hesitation Marks portrays a person who is not trying to fall into a niche, who is excited by new music but is not trying necessarily trying to keep up with the Jones', the generations of thousands of artists that he's influenced in terms of style; This is a person who can do reunion tours for the rest of his life and rest on his laurels by keeping the same formula, but instead is maybe being very disruptive to his comfort zone vis-a-vis the music (allowing so many other cooks in the kitchen, for example), but maybe not that worried about getting too overwrought with lyrics that perhaps he assumes no one reads anyway.  It's hard to tell if a person is compromising himself or not sometimes.  Maybe there has been too much osmosis of mediocre, lowest common denominator, temporally successful fest bands that Nine Inch Nails has headlined for.  Maybe Trent Reznor is cynical and Machiavellian in his claims that he sincerely revisited his most highly acclaimed album, near its 20th anniversary, at least figuratively, and also brought on the same cover artist; To express this new concept of rhythmic electronics as pop music that just happens to have a video directed by David Lynch for the first single.  Lynch just happened to have worked with Reznor right around the time The Downward Spiral exploded, where Reznor produced the soundtracks to the movie Lost Highway.  Reznor could have easily done it for hype value and also to piss off his former label, who probably nagged him to do another one like that for a long time.   The Downward Spiral was based on building around samples and heavy guitars.  This one is based on something else, and doesn't sound too much like The Downward Spiral at all, in fact, the guitars and samples are obscured.  Hank Williams is sampled in the last song and you can't even tell.   So is this cover art / return to form affectation aesthetically convenient or sincere?  Is this a veiled attempt at a repeat performance?
In 1999, five years after The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails did a double album, against the will of their label.  The album, The Fragile, which went platinum despite being the cost of two discs,  was the last album Reznor did on drugs and four years or so went by before the next album came.  It took time for a lot of young listeners to adapt to the spaciness and complexity of the album, but many fans now regard it as being right on par with The Downward Spiral.   The Fragile is as close as I've heard of an industrial opera of sorts, a concept album about being deeply immersed in depression, then almost getting out of it, only to fall a hundred floors deeper.  The wide array of styles represented, so many different elements simultaneously gracefully and awkwardly crammed into the rock paradigm, such inventiveness with (synthetic or organic) string instruments, jazz elements, serious, cerebral musicianship; I invisioned that the next album would be even fuller, even more electrically orchestral, but instead it was kind of a political hangover album (With Teeth) where Reznor himself eventually said in so many words, that he relied too heavily on the opinions of others instead of going with the little man up there.   Albums became more minimal from there instead of being the complex sample barrages, but I always hoped there'd be some electronic/string orchestra.  I've thought the dude would eclipse Portishead's symphonic work, or at least be doing a duet with Luciano Pavorroti or something.   The hope is still there, and maybe gut instinct will lead him to something like that for the next album.  But in the meantime, listening to this one on vinyl is like listening to an old friend and being glad that ultimately, despite my personal differences in taste/hopes/expectations, Trent Reznor's not anywhere near the caricature that some of the youtube critics have tried to paint, much less the caricature that most of the 50+ year old rock stars have become.  To that end, Nine Inch Nails is always worth listening to, based on the untapped potential this artist is rife with alone, even if it might take time to grow into the tone of it.  There might still be too many cooks in the kitchen and too many consultants and advisors, distractions and time constraints, but the creativity and talent still shine through.  I'm still first in line to hear the next album.  

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