Good Morning, Funkhouser readers! How are you? I’m doing fairly well, though I have to admit to you that this blogging thing got harder a lot more quickly than I thought it would. I knew I wanted to write about the new Nine Inch Nails album but when I started searching for information about it, there already seemed to be thousands of things written about it! In the first week of doing this, I’ve already started to feel like a little like this:
I know, though, that the internet is overrun with lots and lots of people writing about a lot of the same things, so I just have to have an interesting take on it and I’ll be good! Newly resolved I pulled up the new album, Hesitation Marks, on Spotify and the first lyrics were:
I’m just a copy of a copy of a copy
Everything I say has come before
I knew then that I was on the right track, and that Trent Reznor was going to get me through any panicked writer’s block.
A bit of back-story: I spent my teenage years growing up in Independence, KY. As people were fond of telling me, Northern Kentucky is regarded around the state as basically part of Ohio (Ohioans will tell you that Kentucky can have Cincinnati), and so by that law I imagine that Mercer, PA, where Trent Reznor grew up, was also approximately Ohio. I like to think that this faux-angst ridden, middle class, midwest upbringing is why I, and a lot of my friends from Cincinnati/NKY, feel such a connection with NIN music.
Now I didn’t listen to NIN albums during their classic era, like a lot of my favorite music I discovered all of them after the fact. The first album that I bought within the same year that it was released was 1999’s The Fragile. That album, and really all NIN albums, had two well-executed characteristics that really put it above other Industrial/Electronic rock, Reznor’s oft-discussed pop sensibilities and the layering present on a lot of the songs. These are the two most endearing features of NIN music and they make the songs infinitely repeatable. Listen to “Sin”, one of the best songs on 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, and tell me that it doesn’t sound like a kind of warped version of an A-Ha song:
I kind of want to dance to it, in my own way of dancing (hint: it’s a shoulder shimmy). Reznor could have seriously written hooks for any hip-hop/rap group, had he so wanted. He’s the master of hooks in minor and I’m sure that a lot of you can think of NIN songs that get stuck in your head and are very sing-a-long-able. The fact that you can sing along with it has always been one of the selling points for me, it’s one of those things that separates it from the herd.
The other part that makes NIN great is the mastery with which Reznor layers sound on his music. Just listen to “Ruiner” from 1994’s The Downward Spiral and notice all of the different tracks in the background:
That is a seriously crazy soundscape, there’s so much going on! It illustrates perfectly the way that NIN construct each song with precision.
That was kind of a long prologue, but it illustrates two really important pieces of why I love NIN and how I reacted to this album. They’re also reasons why I think that Reznor escapes being dated by the albums recorded in his heyday. While artists like Paul McCartney and David Bowie release new albums trying to capture the magic of their best material again, Reznor just chugs along making appealing music that seems, to me, to fit whatever era of pop he’s in. In this vein, Hesitation Marks is an album that perfectly captures 2013 and is really the darker side of our modern dance/pop music.
The album is book-ended by instrumental tracks that, much like a cold open on a TV-show or a prologue of a book, set the mood for the album. That mood is, of course, dark but by the 30 second mark of “Copy of A” you’re already feeling that aforementioned dance groove. If I had really good speakers I can imagine that the drum and synths on this track would be extremely danceable. The further into the album, in fact, the more like a warped dance album this feels like. Look at the lyrics for “All Time Low” and tell me that this couldn’t be a Lady Gaga or Drake tune being pumped in the club (if it was set to dancier music):
Get down on the floor
Shut the god damn door
We’ll do this all before
They’re coming back for more
So give me just a little, baby
Just something to get by
It’s gonna last forever, baby
We’ll get the other side
And we will live forever, baby
And stretch across the sky
I’ll follow right behind you, baby
We’re never gonna die
In the first half of the album Reznor plays with blood bath vampire club dance beats and teases with moments of lighthearted pop before diving back down into a dark synth-scape again. Yet, just when you think that the entire album is going to be a goth-like retreat back to your mid-90’s glory days the song “Everything” starts to play. It’s the first shocking moment for me. What has Trent been listening to in his down-time?
After listening to it a couple of times, though, I can’t get enough. NIN should have recorded an album of all lighter pop songs a long time ago and then he might be winning the “Best Song of the Millennium” challenge. This is why Reznor has managed to keep NIN relevant far, far longer than any similar band, and longer than a whole bunch of other artists I like. He can experiment with genres and make good, catchy music while still maintaining the overall continuity of sound that makes Nine Inch Nails the band that they are.
Listening to the songs after that, the next track to stand out to me is “Running” which is another one of his most dance-worthy songs. It has a relentless beat, but in a low-key, background sort of way. It’s also another example of how this album takes popular genres and molds it into a very NIN sort of song.
It’s safe to say that I like this album a lot. I think that it’s a great addition to the discography. That is not to say that it’s a perfect album though. There are a couple of songs that I didn’t care for. “While I’m Still Here,” “Find My Way,” and “Satellite” all felt a bit like filler the first couple of listens. Yet, listening to “Satellite” the third time or so, something caught my attention. I was still listening to the whole song and at the end of the song I was still listening intently, without consciously meaning to. What I realized about the filler material on NIN albums is that the soundscapes are so rich and so filled with ambient noise that they still keep your attention when the lyrics and other instrumentation don’t.
I’ve posted the entire album below, so that you can judge for yourself, but as I’ve explained I think that this album very much maintains the high standards that Trent Reznor obviously has for Nine Inch Nails. Using detailed, rich sound canvases and by being willing to bend and morph genres to fit his own peculiar template he makes an album that both calls back to his most popular hits and stays current with today’s music. I really enjoyed listening to it, let me know if you did too!
PS. This review was almost derailed when I discovered that Eddie Murphy is coming out with a reggae album called 9, and has already released a video single called “Red Light” feat. Snoop Lion. Watch this video, I don’t know whether to laugh, or applaud, or secretly listen to it 20 times in a row…
Follow me on twitter @KalanKucera