If you have tickets to see Nine Inch Nails at the Sprint Center — where the band makes its second stop on a new tour — you probably know how "March of the Pigs" looks these days.
You've probably seen, for instance, YouTube footage from NIN's Lollapalooza appearance in July. There's hired tour gun Ilan Rubin, playing his drums at full intensity one moment and then, as if by teleportation, appearing behind a keyboard several feet away as the song comes up for air. Rubin taps out a few delicate piano lines, only to resume his place at the kit as the main driver of the song's frantic, odd-metered rhythm.
That stealthy precision, that single choreographic feat, shows the scale and rigor that Trent Reznor brings to NIN shows. It shows that Reznor's decision to reinstate his band is no concession to an audience that just wants to relive a '90s experience.
Hesitation Marks, the band's seventh proper album, and its first after a four-year hiatus marked by Reznor's marriage and fatherhood, arrived in early September. It could have been a nostalgic belch of the anger and the wallowing that were hallmarks of that past decade — features that Reznor himself played no small role in defining. It isn't.
On the new album, Reznor hardly raises his voice. And when he sings lines that sound hopeful, lines such as I am home/I am free/I believe, the mood seems so jarringly out of place that you expect a punch line, an ironic subversion to bubble up in a subsequent verse. That doesn't happen.
The album title itself — the forensic term for scars left by the superficial cuts from an attempted or unsuccessful suicide — is a nod to The Downward Spiral's preoccupation with self-annihilation. But newfound domesticity has given Reznor a very different perspective, one audible in the choices that he and longtime co-producer and collaborator Atticus Ross have made with their arrangements.
A typical song on Hesitation Marks moves into its chorus without following the band's standard pattern of getting bigger, aggressive, guitar-saturated. Instead, these songs retreat inward, though not quite to the implosive head space of The Downward Spiral, which Reznor was consciously looking back on when he set out to write the material that would become the new album.
On Hesitation Marks, Reznor and his accompanying musicians still refer to the NIN of decades past. You instantly recognize shades of 1999's double-disc The Fragile in the appropriated, digitally rubberized funk that defines "All Time Low." The verse section of "In Two" recalls back to "Down in It," from the band's 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine.
To channel music onstage that's violent, sexualized and anguished, Reznor relies on touring musicians who aren't shy about beating up on their instruments. At times, Reznor and his cohorts have been more focused on wrecking their gear than playing it. There was the band's performance at Woodstock '94, for instance, and other footage from around the same time (collected in the 1994–1996 Self Destruct tour documentary) showing a bunch of wild-eyed, malicious pricks whom any sensible person would avoid. Back then, Reznor would freely pound the microphone against his skull, tackle his bandmates, jump all over his equipment, call the audience "fuckheads," and end songs with extended bouts of whimpering.
It's hard to imagine a similarly extreme approach to putting Hesitation Marks on the road. The record comes off as the work of a songwriter still pushing himself, and pushing more quietly. But as a performer, Reznor remains committed to a kind of physical legacy, and the rapturous response of this summer's Lollapalooza crowd to his old material attests to its enduring appeal. He still knows how to wield that power onstage.