Talkhouse Contributing Writer Rick Moody is a member of the Wingdale Community Singers. He is also the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays called On Celestial Music. Since 2009, he has written music criticism at the Rumpus.
I like singles bands, bands that are more noteworthy for strings of arresting tracks than they are noteworthy for albums. Here are some bands, in no particular order, that I would consider excellent composers of singles: the Turtles, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, Blondie, the Motels, the Psychedelic Furs, the Knack, the Offspring, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Pavement, Gilbert O’Sullivan, XTC, etc. There would be many other fine examples. Clearly, the great album is in some danger, in this iTunes and YouTube and Spotify moment in which we find ourselves. The present moment, with its carving up of careers into discrete tracks, selects for artists of singles. Can you name an album by Katy Perry or Carly Rae Jepsen or Psy? Without resorting to a search engine, I cannot, in any of these cases.
What to do, you artists of the album?
And yet here comes Trent Reznor, after a layoff of some years in which he made very good film soundtracks, and in which he convened his Wings/Plastic Ono Band project, viz., the band in which he created a place for his wife to sing, How to Destroy Angels. (Very hard for me not to read that band name as: How to Destroy a Marriage.) I assume I am not alone in finding this Wings/Plastic Ono Band-style project not significantly better than other Wings/Plastic Ono Band-style projects. These endeavors — soundtracks and nuptial side project — have kept a very great songwriter busy for a while, and in the matter of the soundtracks, they have resulted in fine work, but they have not conquered the world, and this has resulted in Radiohead being (arguably) the only rock band of the present that manages both considerable critical and intellectual esteem and monster sales. This must have been an intolerable situation to Trent Reznor.
Over the years: he got sober, he got married, he fathered a couple of kids. I believe it is fair to mention these biographical phenomena because I believe a stable family life to be a good thing. I personally assume that the really great and slightly ridiculous Nine Inch Nails songs, the great singles by Nine Inch Nails (e.g., “Head Like a Hole,” “Hurt,” “Suck,” etc.), are the work of a greatly self-destructive young man who could have used a lot more therapeutic intervention than he was getting at the time of their composition. I have great sympathy for the self-destructive ranting of young people, but I no longer find that ranting (“I want to fuck you like an animal!”) irremediable. I find it curable, and therefore not poetical, nor revealing. I assume that at some point the self-destructive person will achieve remediation of symptoms (in Reznor’s case, somewhere between 1999’s The Fragile and 2005’s With Teeth), at which point a certain set of lyrical themes will no longer be necessary.
With hindsight, Trent Reznor appears to be a particularly fallible lyricist and fair-to-middling thinker about the human condition. This is perhaps the reason for the instrumental album Ghosts I-IV that closed out the first period of Nine Inch Nails (in 2009), as well as the reason for the subsequent film work: no lyrics necessary.
Where does that leave us with the new Hesitation Marks? On the one hand, we have an album that is long on texture, and on the idea of the album, things that we associate with a supple and gifted artist who once made a great suite of songs called The Downward Spiral. But that doesn’t mean that there are not some problems with these textures at this late date, after the Era of the Album: Reznor, having come up through the ranks of industrial music on the early albums, and having perfected a certain kind of industrial-in-the-verses-punk-in-the-choruses song form that bound together some rather disparate musical constituencies, seems, for example, to have lost faith in the electric guitar, the weapon of choice in the punk idiom. Hesitation Marks, in the Era of the Completely Canned, Computer-based, Auto-Tuned Top 40 Single, has let go of the punk in the choruses (the first song released from the album, “Came Back Haunted,” unsurprisingly, is one of the few here to feature direct linkage to the earlier Nine Inch Nails form), and replaced this with a contemporary electronica that is instead at the heart of this album. There’s some funk on Hesitation Marks and some r&b, yes, but what you hear a lot of are the now rather irritating drum machines and rhythms of dance music, and the gulping synthesizer blips that would not be out of place among Orbital, Autechre, Mouse on Mars, Aphex Twin, Matmos, or, say, Lady Gaga.
There is still the wonderful guitar playing of Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, et al.), and there is the addition here of Lindsey Buckingham (???!!!!!?????) of Fleetwood Mac, a truly great guitar player who has never gotten quite his due in wonky guitar circles, who sounds as ominous and pastoral and dark as Belew does on these tracks. But the guitars on Hesitation Marks are sort of the remnant of what was once rock & roll; they feel so heavily treated as to be more like the My Bloody Valentine conception of guitars: guitars sampled digitally until they are only residually stringed instruments. Those who think of The Downward Spiral or The Fragile as albums of textures, primarily, will recognize the artist at work here. With a pair of headphones there’s a lot to listen to on these 14 songs. A lot of space, a lot of pastiche, a lot of ambience. That is one seductive aspect of the album.
The melodies don’t seem to break any new ground at all. At the end of the day, part of what made Reznor’s marriage of industrial and punk so great was his facility with melody. Just as Kurt Cobain managed to marry a Lennon-and-McCartneyesque gift for melody to punk guitar stylings and conquered the world, so did Reznor have an almost Motown-like gift for the catchy tune and a good melodic hook. Even some of the less well-known later work (“The Hand That Feeds,” let’s say, or “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”) is noteworthy for first-rate melody. But the melodies on Hesitation Marks, at least on these preliminary listens, lean on pentatonic scales as if they were composed to the backing tracks, rather than vice versa. And almost all of the melodies here sound like other Nine Inch Nails melodies. (Or like melodies from funk — the melody in “All Time Low,” for example, sounds like something George Clinton or Prince might have come up with.) What about that little faux-pianistic figure that made “Closer” so great? The great piano playing that sometimes turns up on Ghosts I-IV? You don’t hear that kind of thing on Hesitation Marks. You hear grooves instead of melodies.
The lyrics, as ever, present a problem. “Copy of A,” which is probably the best and most effective song on the album, disdains the idea of making the album at all, and this is a recurrent strain of this the album: lyrics that wonder why bother, and you can see how Reznor might have gotten to that point, the point where having Nine Inch Nails hang around your neck was to be wearing an albatross. Tours that last a year and a half, massive theatrical undertakings, in which you play to millions of people in the dark, people who want to see the boiling temper and mayhem of early Nine Inch Nails every night, and in which there are rampant drugs, and every town looks the same, and you never get to go home, and so on. (Marilyn Manson keeps doing it year after year, and look where it’s gotten him.) Who would want to go through that? And yet: where else to go with the lyrics beyond, simply, the NIN ache? The dark self-exploration seems to continue here, or at least Reznor wants it to continue, but it just doesn’t seem as honest as it used to. It all feels a bit formulaic: “See I keep lying to myself/Don’t know what else there is to do/if I could be somebody else/Well, I think I would for you.”
My suggestion is: why not tell the truth? Why not tell the truth about a reasonably rewarding and gratifying middle age with a wife who presumably loves you, and in which you are not fucking yourself up so completely? Why not sing about the excellently named Lazarus and Balthazar? Why are these things so fearsome that one might rather write some more miserably dissatisfied songs about disaffiliation and anomie than face the idea that one is, well, successful and accomplished, sort of a genius, and that the world is very responsive to that genius? Why not make some songs in which you start to see the world as it is, as a rather precious place with a lot of people trying to make some good from it, despite the horror of the times, doing their best to do good work and love the people around them, which is what your highly successful career ratifies — this very notion of the world. Or why not a song about a nice night at home with the lovely wife and the two sons, in which you pull some vegetables out of the garden, watch the sunset, all while, e.g., the President mulls what to do about the nerve agents in a desert land far away? That is the truth, after all, the truth of power and of our brief term here. And that truth is more complex and compelling than the dissatisfactions of the self. Well, there is, in fact, one song of this kind on the album, and it’s called “Everything,” and it actually has a kind of happy ending: “I am home, I believe, I am free.” It also has the one indisputably singable melody on the album, and feels quite a bit like the great period of the Cure, the Cure of “Just Like Heaven,” and “Friday I’m in Love.” This, Mr. Reznor, would be a good place to start.
Yes, what this listener really wants from Trent Reznor is a really memorable single, and on “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” we have reasonably good examples of same, though they are songs in which it is no longer relevant what Trent is saying. It’s only relevant how he says it. Which means, in the end, that Trent Reznor is now a lot like the Psychedelic Furs, or Blondie, or the Knack, or Wang Chung, or Ministry during their New Romantic phase, or, say, Howard Jones. I actually think this is true, that Hesitation Marks (whose hesitation is not about whether or not to end a life but more about whether or not to bother making this album) is sort of like a Howard Jones album: funky, light, electronic, with some nice sinewy sounds on it, and about nothing at all. Hesitation Marks is Howard Jones affecting a scowl. Actually, if Howard Jones had scowled a little more, he might have moved more units. I actually think that Howard Jones has made some better singles than “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted,” and I think Reznor can too. Some songs about being a contented guy with a pair of adorable kids and a beautiful, talented wife and an amazing career. Worth considering.