I don't think there are too many modern artists with the creditably and sheer creativeness of Trent Reznor, leader of the de facto band Nine Inch Nails.
From commercial success, particularly in the mid-'90s with "The Downward Spiral" to the sheer expansiveness and ambition of 2001's "The Fragile" - an album I consider to be NIN's masterpiece - Reznor has pretty much gone it alone for much of his career, although his collaborations with other artists, from Marilyn Manson to Ministry to Queens of the Stone Age, make him one of the most influential artists of the past 20 years.
Now NIN has released the band's latest, "Hesitation Marks," with some surprising musicians and, even more interestingly, signed to a major label - Columbia. The basic lowdown is "Hesitation Marks" is easily the best NIN album in more than 12 years.
In stature and respect, the artist that most comes to mind is David Bowie, who greatly influenced NIN, while at the same time NIN influenced Bowie's late '90s and early 2000's work. Bowie and Reznor sealed their mutual admiration by working on and appearing on Bowie's single and the video for "I'm Afraid of Americans," which I find a most amusing and ironic song and video. The two even toured together in the mid-'90s, although I missed that one.
I did have the chance to see NIN live with A Perfect Circle as opener at Starlake several years ago, which I consider one of the best five live shows I've ever seen.
NIN and Reznor continued his collabs whenever possible while also doing the occasional soundtrack for films. He's worked with everyone from Dr. Dre, who openly admired Reznor's flair for creating electronic grooves, to filmmaker David Lynch, with Reznor scoring much of Lynch's film "Lost Highway" and putting together a soundtrack for the film featuring everyone from Bowie to Manson. Reznor also has created music for videogames, created the soundtrack for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and is a much-sought producer.
The 2000s saw Reznor become nearly a totally independent artist, with several releases available - at first - on NIN's website before being distributed as physical products in the form of CDs and vinyl as well as on iTunes, Amazon.com, etc. He's even been known to release free digital downloads of his work, such as the mid-2000s album "The Slip."
I've never passed on a NIN album, although that's been pretty easy for the past five years, since the virtual band has released anything. One of my favorites NIN albums of the past 10 years was the ambient release "Ghosts I-IV," which I have on vinyl.
Reznor announced last year he was resurrecting NIN and "building the band from the ground up" for "Hesitation Marks," and he wasn't kidding. I could see Reznor working with guitarist Adrian Belew of King Crimson fame, who also has worked with David Bowie and other likeminded artists, as well as the Who bassist Pino Palladino, but I have to admit guitarist Lindsey Buckingham - guitarist, songwriter and singer for classic rock band Fleetwood Mac - really threw me. I mean, Lindsey Buckingham in NIN? Well, I guess - why not?
The fact is "Hesitation Marks" sounds more like NIN to my ears than anything since "The Fragile," an ambitious work loosely based on classic rock concept albums such as Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
But there's an important difference - Reznor, who always has moved deftly between rock, electronica and industrial, has left much of the industrial treatments behind on "Hesitation Marks." And Reznor, known for his near suicidally despondent lyrics, actually has penned a song that's, well - happy, at least in a NIN sort of way.
Reznor has never written anything quite like the transcendent "Everything," which sounds suspiciously like a manifesto of triumph and clear vision after a try at doing away with oneself.
In fact, the specter of suicide hangs all over "Hesitation Marks," but in a way that speaks of survival - the mind-numbingly conformist angst of "A Copy of a" to one who has witnessed "the other side" on "Came Back Haunted." "Find My Way" also sounds like the regrets of one who went too far, while "All Time Low" sounds as desperate as the title.
Reznor, who's always had a love-hate relationship with his higher power, finally speaks metaphorically to his creator in "Satellite," which sounds like some kind of an agnostic's prayer ending with a challenge: "I know you're up there somewhere ... So very high."
As Reznor ages he finds himself unafraid to express an emotion virtually unknown in the dank, dark industrial world - hope. That's different for NIN.
The music itself is superb, with Reznor doing most of the playing and singing. The music also is stripped down in a post-modern way, with Reznor's expressive vocals providing the hooks. And no one is better at creating modern, quirky grooves with electronics than Reznor. This album swings.
Buckingham and Belew add their window dressing, with Belew's unusual guitar sonics especially noticeable. But this is by no means a guitar album. The focus this time is on Reznor's vocals and risk-taking at alienating his audience while still moving forward the machine known as NIN. That's the sign of a great artist.
"Hesitation Marks" is an album by an artist that isn't afraid to turn back and march forward at the same time. For those reasons alone, it earns high marks from me.