Showing posts with label nine inch nails. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nine inch nails. Show all posts

Monday, September 2, 2013

video review: 'hesitation marks' by nine inch nails

Yeah, two album reviews in one day. This one's been in the works for a while, and I'm fairly happy with how it came out. I'm fairly certain I'm going to get ripped apart, though, mostly because I'm part of the apparent minority who thought The Fragile was absolute shit. 

Ah well. The trials of being a critic.

album review: 'hesitation marks' by nine inch nails

I'm going to say something that's borderline anathema to everything I stand for as a reviewer, something I never expected I would say and something I sincerely hope won't kill my credibility forever: sometimes, pure sincerity just doesn't work. Sometimes, it might be actually be the crippling blow that ends up throwing the entire album out of whack. And for somebody who has always prized sincere delivery in performance above most, this sort of conclusion is both enlightening and infuriating.

And for this unexpected revelation, I blame Nine Inch Nails.

Now let me make this clear, I don't think Trent Reznor's project is entirely without merit or is a 'bad' band, to say nothing of any of the slew of moral outrage that has been directed at the act over the past several years. My issues with Nine Inch Nails aren't linked to any aversion to their shock factor or their abrasive sound or the nihilistic subject matter (well, at least not entirely). As someone who listens to industrial metal acts like Ministry or Pain, I'm well-aware of Nine Inch Nails' impact on the industry as one of the pioneers of their genre.

And for the most part, Nine Inch Nails have earned that reputation, particularly in their instrumentation off of their first two LPs, Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, the two albums that cemented Trent Reznor and his band in pop culture and in the eyes of the controversy circuit. The themes, particularly those on The Downward Spiral, were steeped in an examination of depression and self-loathing, and it's not hard to buy the underlying very real emotions that inspired songs like 'Closer' or 'March Of The Pigs' or 'Hurt'. And coupled with Reznor's uncanny knack for fusing industrial sounds with surprisingly catchy melodies, it's no surprise that Nine Inch Nails built their cult of personality that would permeate goth and alternative clubs all over the world.

But here's the problem: it's clear from every album Reznor has released since that he is haunted by the success of The Downward Spiral, and his attempts to replicate its success in differing forms have never managed to work, partially because Reznor can never properly detach from his material to provide that additional context and weight that made The Downward Spiral such a deeply affecting, influential, and critically acclaimed work. 

Of course, that doesn't touch the other big problem with Trent Reznor: he has never been a great songwriter. I'm not saying he's terrible or not talented - far from it, he has a gift for crafting memorable hooks that most industrial acts wish they could have - but to say that his nihilism has long ago stopped being compelling is probably underselling it. Now that's not saying that he hasn't tried to inject it with some degree of variety, but Reznor has a bad habit of returning to the same themes and cliches over and over again, and it very rapidly commits the cardinal sin of any nihilistic artwork: getting really boring and repetitive really fast. Forget buying into the 'HALOs' or Trent Reznor's cult of personality (which I'd argue he hasn't really earned), I had a hard enough time getting through the Nine Inch Nails discography over my vacation as a refresher because Reznor's songwriting regularly found ways to get on my nerves in a serious way. And most of the problem comes from the fact that Reznor is selling every single line with complete honesty and sincerity, which makes some of the more cringe-inducing lyrics even worse. If they were delivered with the slightest bit of additional nuance or a hint of irony, they might be more excusable, but too often they vary between being infuriating and just embarrassing.

Now granted, it wasn't as if Reznor didn't try to replicate his success with The Downward Spiral, which led to seriously mixed results. The first attempt was The Fragile and Things Falling Apart, two atrocious albums where any of the limited subtlety that Reznor had in his lyrics was pitched out the window in favour of swaggering, self-serving bravado and terribly out-of-place acoustic instrumentation in favour of catering to the late-90s obnoxious brats that bought into Reznor's cult without thinking. Forget the deeper context that informed The Downward Spiral or the motifs and symbolism - no, let's go for greater aggression and shock with a quarter of the subtlety. Things did improve in With Teeth, which held a tighter balance between inward and outward aggression, but the lyrics didn't really impress and the instrumentation seemed even less controlled. It was also on With Teeth that we got the first hint of Reznor's political edge, which fully manifested itself on Year Zero, an album that would honestly require a full-length review on its own to fully unpack. For now, I'll say that there was a lot of interesting ideas toyed with on Year Zero, but the execution was muddled and ultimately I was left distinctly confused and unsatisfied with the whole endeavour (although the Green Day fan in me loves 'Capital G' for its sheer blunt Bush hatred).

And really, I can directly trace the lack of satisfaction with later Nine Inch Nails less to the lyrics (which for the most part I tend to give up on) to the instrumentation. Instead of using electronica to create the distortion and more jagged segments of his music, he's chosen to rely on these heavy, feedback-swollen guitars that might create an impressive wall of sound, but lack the control that made his songs really gripping to me. I've gotten to the point as someone who listens to harsh, abrasive music that raw walls of distortion just doesn't impress me the same way if the tune is seriously lacking (and more often than not on later Nine Inch Nails albums, it definitely is). That's also where I tend to come down on his 2008 album The Slip, which once again failed to recapture that tightness that made Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral so effective (to say nothing of the lyrics, which might be the most minimalist and slapdash work I've ever seen Reznor put on record). At this point, I'd have a hard time pointing to any of Reznor's work besides his moody, ambient pieces (Ghosts in particular, which is unfocused but does capture the appropriate atmospherics quite well) as anything I can recommend. 

But this is 2013, and Trent Reznor is 48 - surely his songwriting has evolved into something new, particularly after a five year hiatus from Nine Inch Nails, right? Surely there's something worth liking here on Nine Inch Nails' new album Hesitation Marks, right?