Nine Inch Nails returns from brief hiatus with ‘Hesitation Marks’

Alexander McCall

While Nine Inch Nails’ biggest records, such as “The Downward Spiral,” are widely acclaimed, they’ve long been considered fodder for angst-ridden teens.

It didn’t help that after cleaning up from a battle with addiction, Trent Reznor’s albums became increasingly slick. Still, occasional posturing never concealed the fact that Reznor is a consummate, innovative producer.

His work after NIN’s hiatus in 2009, which included the Oscar-winning soundtrack for “The Social Network” and side project “How to Destroy Angels,” was a perfect reminder of Reznor’s skills.

 “Hesitation Marks” – billed as NIN’s comeback album – is markedly superior to Reznor’s post-1990s work and stands as one of his best albums.

Featuring co-production from frequent collaborators Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder, “Hesitation Marks” is a vibrant, thrilling electronic pop album.

Most of these tracks lock into intoxicating, impressively detailed dance grooves. Hip-hop, house and glitchy techno all make their way into the album’s singular aesthetic.

Most surprising among the guests is Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, who lays down several bluesy, clean licks that really elevate the songs on which he appears.

“Hesitation Marks” is one of NIN’s most accessible albums. The songs frequently build to huge choruses that harken back to the stadium-rock of “With Teeth.”

It’s true that this radio-ready strain of NIN deals in more lyrical clichés than usual. Singles like “Came Back Haunted” seem to play into by-the-numbers themes expressed a little less than eloquently.

On closer inspection, Reznor displays a sense of restraint that keeps the music from veering into the overly preachy material on “Year Zero.” Much of the album scans as introspective reflection.

Lyrics like “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy” and “I survived everything” feel like direct, personal statements. They aren’t exactly revelatory lyrics, but they are more interesting than they let on.

Take a hook like “It’s getting harder to tell the two of you apart” from standout “In Two.” The lyrics are vague, typical NIN fare, but this leaves the hook tantalizingly ambiguous. When delivered in an energetic falsetto, the chorus soars.

If you’ve resisted NIN for their dramatic angst and aggressive guitar noise, now’s the time to reconsider. “Hesitation Marks” will appeal to fans of hip-hop producer El-P as well as LCD Soundsystem or TV on the Radio’s louder moments.

“Hesitation Marks” is exceptionally re-playable and captivating from beginning to end. It bears the shortcomings of Reznor’s music in general, but it transcends them with incredible production and a skip in its step.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10