Trent Reznor has always thrived on the uneasy border between pop and industrial music, his best work demonstrating his commingled talents for evoking sinister atmosphere and writing taut, catchy tunes. The former felt increasingly left by the wayside prior to Nine Inch Nails’ recently-aborted hiatus; both Year Zero and With Teeth hewed closer to pop at the expense of texture, and The Slip merely felt incomplete. Reznor’s talent for weaving a forbidding atmosphere with unique sounds was still evident – just within side projects like his soundtrack work (or Ghosts).
My expectations for Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years, were tempered by the just-okay first single, “Came Back Haunted,” a straightforward, well-executed pop song that nonetheless lacked anything distinguishing. Thankfully, this proved unrepresentative of Hesitation Marks as a whole, an album whose compass remains embedded in pop music but swings seductively around to genres like hip-hop and R&B as inspiration. This is an album that wants to seduce you (and requires a subwoofer to appreciate). To my ears, Reznor doesn’t sound like he’s come back haunted; rather it seems like he’s traded his earlier work’s deep-seated despair for a wide, mysterious grin, and I’m all for it.