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By Evoking Its Past, Nine Inch Nails Moves Forward In Music And Art

Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 09:00 AM

Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails' new album 'Hesitation Marks' is out Sept. 3. Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails' new album 'Hesitation Marks' is out Sept. 3. (Rob Sheridan/Courtesy of the artist)

From Justin Timberlake and David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine to Daft Punk, Boards Of Canada, and even Mazzy Star, 2013 has been a year dominated by highly-anticipated, long-awaited new records from long-dormant artists. And then there's Nine Inch Nails, which will release its comeback album, Hesitation Marks, on Sept. 3.

Compared to most of these recent comebacks, Nine Inch Nails hasn't been off the radar all that long -- it's no 20-plus year eternity between Loveless and mbv. And really, it's not like Trent Reznor, the enigmatic iconoclast behind NIN, went away either. In fact, Reznor's profile has perhaps never been bigger, thanks to his inventive Academy Award-winning film score with Atticus Ross on The Social Network and follow-up score for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

And this year alone saw the release of the stellar album Welcome Oblivion, from How To Destroy Angels, a Reznor side-project with Ross, Reznor's wife Mariqueen Maandig, and Rob Sheridan, who's also the group's art director.



Still, even with a four-year hiatus, it's always a music news event when Trent Reznor announces something new -- like say, a Nine Inch Nails reformation, a NIN tour, a new NIN album.

While I haven't yet heard the entire record, the three singles released so far -- "Came Back Haunted," "Copy Of A," and "Everything" -- have completely exceeded expectations. For a band that's been around as long as NIN has, it's no small feat to live up to any big-time hype-cycle.



All three songs thus far offer a different side to Nine Inch Nails and Reznor: "Came Back Haunted" is perhaps the most like the NIN of old; "Copy Of A," is a seething, minimal-ish electronic banger; the just-released single "Everything" is a noisy, deceivingly poppy rock song. So as longtime, albeit hardly diehard fan, this is the best NIN has sounded in a very long time.

Even the seizure-inducing, David Lynch-directed video for "Came Back Haunted" is pretty amazing, and predictably dark.



Judging by these tiny glimpses of a fuller record, it's clear Nine Inch Nails sounds refreshed and as forward-thinking as ever. The band is also managing to tap into a harsher, teeth-gnashing industrial electronic sound that channels the band's earliest beloved albums, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1994's The Downward Spiral, an era that many fans look to as their favorite.


So as Reznor readies the latest iteration of the band -- with Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini, Ilan Rubin, and Josh Eustis -- and drops a few songs so reminiscent of his previous work, it's notable and tonally spot-on that the new record's album cover artwork and typography also look back to the visual aesthetic of the past, namely The Downward Spiral.


Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral


With Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails has tapped artist Russell Mills -- the guy responsible for The Downward Spiral's gritty paintings -- to create, not just one, but four different covers, one for each format: Standard CD, Deluxe CD, vinyl LP and digital. According to the press release on the band's Web site, Mills' artwork was created with traditional materials like plaster, oils, acrylics, and wire as well as some less common ones, such as blood, microscope slides, "burning," and earth. In all, Mills apparently made 30 total pieces for Hesitation Marks, which will be distributed as part of the album's packaging.

Here's the artwork for the "digital" record cover, a piece called "Turn And Burn."


The digital cover to Nine Inch Nails' 'Hesitation Marks.'


On Nine Inch Nails' Tumblr page, Mills recently described the origin and meaning behind his work on Hesitation Marks' art:

"The works explore ideas of catharsis, of being into dissolution into being, both on a personal and sociological level. They allude to ideas about chaos and order. They deal with ways of suggesting presence in absence. They are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred. They attempt to harness the chaos of a situation, of now, of the personal trauma, of the human condition, into a form that is coherent, a form that accommodates the mess without disguising it as something else. It attempts to capture the essence of these ideas by implication and exclusion. Beneath the form lies the uncertainty and ceaseless flux of the mess, of the chaos. An amalgam of the contextually-anchored and the process-driven, they are hopefully powerful, arresting, seductive, suggestive and resonant. I hope that they will invite multiple readings."

And, if that weren't enough, Mills' cover to the single "Everything" even shares the burnt yellow and weathered brown color scheme of Downward Spiral.


The cover to Nine Inch Nails' "Everything."


The most successful album covers are those that become entwined with the music in your head. They can look like how the songs sound, and vice versa. Collectively, all of Russell Mills' works are bold swaths of color that look as tactile and textured as the music; they're lush and beautiful pieces, and yet there's an unnerving quality about them. They allude to the old, while progressing forward.

For some, Hesitation Marks could indicate a recapitulation to a fan-pleasing era. It's a common reaction: Many bands, after so many years of success, tend to relax into a comfortable gear, and simply rehash its hits. But for Trent Reznor, that's never been the case: no matter what he does, time and again he's pushed ahead into new territory; in music, in music business, in technology, in live show production. So sure, these songs and art seem familiar. But I get the sense that Reznor is folding together various aspects of his music career into one vessel as a means of creating something new. 

And maybe because I grew up on that older era of NIN, I've gotta admit I'm feeling strangely more nostalgic for the band than I figured I would, and completely looking forward to hearing this record. If nothing else, it's just cool to have Nine Inch Nails back.


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