By Daphne Carr
If Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 masterpiece Downward Spiral was an opera of depression-induced suicide, then new album Hesitation Marks is an opera in which Trent Reznor grieves, forgives and buries the body. Like all things Nine Inch Nails, this means there is nary a party jam on the album, but it does seem that Reznor is finally ready to cautiously celebrate the life he’s made after the two decades of success and fortune.
In opera, the difference between drama and narration is marked in different forms: aria and recitative. The aria is the place of bold emotion, and the music that conveys that runs hot with melody and sweaty with fresh tortured soul. The first ten years of Nine Inch Nails bears out that plan in songs overwhelmed with rage, choking back tears or otherwise enacting the raw emotional states. “Head Like a Hole,” “Wish” and even the sleazy croon of “Closer” were glimpses of an Id unleashed into mainstream pop consciousness. That era’s Reznor was nothing if not the Romantic archetype, so much so that his myth became entangled with the very ’90s obsession with (non-celibate) vampires. The myth of his superhuman miserabilism was made both through his own consciously dark choices—the man lived near Anne Rice in New Orleans and made an album at the site of the Manson family murders—but also his air of illusive, temperamental crankiness that was induced by mental illness and its crutch, chemical dependency.
In the early 2000s, Reznor got sober and started to assess the difference between feeling and reality. In the past decade, Nine Inch Nails has slowly developed into place where Reznor can comment on the world as he begins to live in it as a person. This is where the recitative form began to overtake the music. In opera, as in Nails, it’s a quick moving, non-melodic vocal framed by sparse chords, which serves the storyline and comments on the emotional states whipped up through aria. The history of Nine Inch Nails involves a shift from aria to recitative told through electro-pop structures, with Hesitation Marks being delivered almost entirely in atonal whispers about the violence of the past over expertly crafted, minimalist beats from the Kraftwerk school and Reznor’s signature piano-tinged industrial noise.