He's a ghost on "Came Back Haunted," recounting a trip to the other side, where a mysterious "they" implant "something inside of me/Its smile is red and its eyes are black/I don't think I'll be coming back." On "Running," which sounds like a Berliner minimal techno track, our hero confesses that he "followed you again this morning/Just close enough to feel you near." He's looking down from above on "Satellite."
"Hesitation Marks" is Nine Inch Nails' first album in five years. In that time, the group's founder and sole recurrent member has focused on film scores with collaborator Atticus Ross ("The Social Network," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), and his How to Destroy Angels project with Ross, Rob Sheridan and wife Mariqueen Maandig.
That work further proved his range to adults and snobs who'd only known him from his angsty hits "Hurt" and "Head Like a Hole." More important, they illustrated a musician whose talents with texture and musical construction seemed barely tapped.
As on that output, NIN's new music showcases a master programmer at the peak of his power, a creative brain so filled with circuitry that what he envisions he perfectly executes. Few electronic composers working today have engineered such an immediately identifiable sounds as Reznor. He builds tones that crystallize with a coldness, but that can melt into liquid warmth in one quick measure. It's a uniquely Reznorian sound.
It's hard to argue with a creative mind who uses on guitar both Adrian Belew (King Crimson) and Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac), and at its best, Reznor and his band on "Hesitation Marks" deliver buzzing, vivid electronic mantras -- and a few surprisingly accessible electronic rock songs -- that will feed his many devoted fans.
The simple ascending and descending synth line that arrives in the middle of "All Time Low," which features a typically labyrinthine Belew guitar line, shimmers within the darkness of Reznor's melodrama like a shooting star. The synthesizer run then doubles, then triples, then quadruples until it encircles itself. It's a magical moment, one of many.
"While I'm Still Here" is minimalist click-and-cut jam with Buckingham on guitar, which sneaks in near the end for a well-placed accent. Nine Inch Nails has seldom sounded so sonically nuanced and patient -- and the last few moments of the song are some of the funkiest Reznor's ever made.
But lyrically and vocally, he is hardly nuanced. His humorless, monochromatic tone tempers "Hesitation Marks" with many shades of dry bummer, the well-worn path winding through a field of flowers. This is a man who reflexively falls toward darkness and pain, sees menace in everything and expresses it similarly.
Which is to say, how much self-flagellation does one man need to convey in his artistic life, and at what point should he think about heading to Nepal or taking a chill pill? His demeanor, mostly gruff and breathy, is an all-or-nothing proposition. He doesn't have the vocal range to offer many surprises, and only due to the sheer force of his musical prowess do many of these tracks shine.
With all the various sonic chaos going around him -- a new wave flair on "Various Methods of Escape," the experimental noise of "Black Noise," which features a well-hidden Hank Williams sample -- the human tone in the middle remains consistently, frustratingly similar, like we've been eavesdropping on the same therapy session for too many years.
"Hesitation" is best when he messes with his voice with equal abandon. "Came Back Haunted," one of the album's highlights, features gargantuan vocal arrangements, a Reznorian army marching down Kraftwerk's autobahn. "In Two" sees him playing with falsetto -- even as he barks out orders.
Reznor would do well to open up the windows and let in some sunlight and fresh air more often. He long ago proved himself a master of musical dynamics. If only he'd pay equal care to the voice at the center of it.
Nine Inch Nails
Two and a half stars out of four