What brought Trent Reznor back to Nine Inch Nails? If you are intrigued by that question then you might be interested in Hesitation Marks, Reznor’s first album in five years. The entire album is dedicated to that question—a question Reznor probably should have answered for himself before making an album. But this is old-man meta Reznor: There is no anger here, no obsessing or focus on ocular perfection. This is a Reznor so self-obsessed that he is willing to mine the most tepid purgatory of his diaries for an album full of music that apes all of his early musical idols without trying to dress it up as anything different.
The first full song on the album should serve as a warning out of The Inferno: “Beware Those Who Enter Here.” But hell does not await in this instance—instead, apathy and self-pity await. “Copy of a Copy” finds Reznor moaning over pitter-patter beats “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/Everything I say has come before/Assembled into something into something into something /I am never certain anymore, I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow.”
If you are slow on the uptake, Reznor nails his point home over and over on the following songs. “Came Back Haunted” is the lamest thing Reznor has ever recorded with the same click-track beats that underwhelm on the rest of the album. “Find My Way” is one of the stronger tracks on the album, but it borrows a chorus straight from Depeche Mode and fails to reach the modest propulsion of their generally moderate songs. “All Time Low” and “Satellite” find Reznor mining The Fragile era for Prince-inspired songs. They are the most intriguing because Reznor bothers to wake up for a minute, but he’s back to sleep by the end of both tracks. “Disappointed” is a blatant Cure rip-off with Reznor channeling a mainstream, every-guy Dave Grohl rasp. It is embarrassing. Reznor gets a bit more experimental toward the end of the disc, but in a relative sense. The beats are still plain, flat and computer-generated. He can’t even bother to turn on the analog distortion, and there isn’t a live drum to be heard.
Reznor used to be the kind of obsessive who would bring in legendary producer Steve Albini to track drums to get that perfect kick-drum blast, a stinging snare. But this Reznor abandons all the quirks that made his music interesting. He has retreated to his computer to pump out easy, inoffensive tracks. If this truly is his middle-aged diary, it would be best for him to keep it to himself.