Album Analysis: New Nine Inch Nails’ album lingers at rock bottom

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These nails can scratch and claw but don’t pack the power to break skin.

“Hesitation Marks” is Nine Inch Nails’ eighth studio album, and its title is a better indicator of the album’s quality than anything else. Mastermind Trent Reznor and crew reach far to instill great paranoia and longing in listeners but quickly scale things down before an impact is made. 

Most significant releases since “Kid A” dropped and unleashed a full-scale assault on guitar music in 2000 have in at least one aspect been compared to Radiohead’s work. From Kanye West to Arcade Fire, this is true, and these acts don’t even resemble Radiohead; they’ve just made musical leaps in a similar fashion.

However, Nine Inch Nails does sound a tad like the English game-changers, and because of this, Reznor has an unfair task to compete with Radiohead’s creative geniuses, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich. Despite the obvious fact this battle is one vs. two, such expectations are unfair because Reznor’s taste is in a different direction, even if both acts sound the same. Also, as far as I’m concerned, Nine Inch Nails’ best albums aren’t even on par with Radiohead’s worst.

Still, “Hesitation Marks” sounds more like Yorke and Godrich’s creations than anything released since Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” in 2011—yes, even more so than Atoms for Peace, a group that includes the two, and its debut album from earlier this year. 

This album features so much empty, sonic space placed as a backtrack to moody lyrics and muted keyboards that the tone is set by track two.

“I’m just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow/Always trying to catch up with myself,” Reznor moans on “Copy of a,” which hints he might just be in the music-making business for self-enlightenment (this is good because his vocals resemble Prince’s if he went tone-deaf and monotone).

“Hesitation Marks” and its production linger like a Radiohead album, though, and until “All Time Low,” I failed to separate these parallels from every aspect.

Yes, after five songs we can blow the comparison away: This, and Nine Inch Nails’ entire catalog, isn’t profound but can include interesting moments where lyrical doom and industrial sounds are bound together. Although the lyrics and songs as a whole aren’t great, numerous blurbs stick.

The instrumental break in “Disappointed” sounds like a shoddy paraglider cutting through icy wind. “I Would For You” and its snares gyrate and bounce like salt and pepper shaken in such a manic fashion that their chemical make-ups almost shift.

Unfortunately, I’m skeptical Reznor sought to create a 60-minute album laced with a few catchy noises.

At rock bottom, “Hesitation Marks” sounds like a Kelly Clarkson disc if she traded angst and redemption for abstractness and punctured windpipes. This album stays at rock bottom longer than James Franco in “127 Hours.” OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but the stripped-down production elongates an already lengthy project, and eight or nine songs—rather than 14—would’ve made tuning out less inevitable.

Despite numerous ramblings, the album ends with great urgency and for no reason. “In Two,” the third-to-last tune, is exceptional, with its numerous cliff-hangers that pulsate, but this would’ve been nice 30 minutes prior. “Hesitation Marks” plummets so far, even the standout track can’t rescue it. Anyone still comparing this music to Radiohead’s should just stop.

Reznor hinted Nine Inch Nails might disappear prior to this, and such a move to preserve the band’s legacy, however great or mediocre, should be taken now. Either that, or I’d say a vigorous pedicure is in order.  

Final Rating: Two-and-a-half out of Five Suns