Who would have ever predicted that Trent Reznor would be the artist of his generation to age most gracefully? Absolutely no one, that's who.
Of course, the Reznor of yore was famously driven by his demons, fueled by addiction, and virtually burning to make artistic statements on a level that sought to make peers of his heroes at any cost. And while Reznor — "Mr. Self-Destruct" incarnate — eventually achieved that level of greatness, the process undoubtedly required some loss of self in one form or another.
The musician and composer has been rather open in the media over the years about the emotional and physical tariffs he once levied upon himself in his more volatile times. However, the "reformed" (though none-the-less vitriolic) and recovered Trent Reznor of present — now almost 50 — is setting a new precedent for how a bona fide rock star raised in outsider art can continue to grow and create in a relevant way.
Still defiant, Reznor returned to Nine Inch Nails with Hesitation Marks. He created an album that almost feels built to spite the faction of hypercritical fans who still lust for another Pretty Hate Machine. In fact, the greatest obstacle Reznor has faced since rebooting the Nine Inch Nails' name has been finding a way to confront the reverence people hold for his legacy — built on the backs of barbed and jagged masterpieces — while introducing fresh and drastically different-sounding fare.
When I reviewed the South Florida date of Nine Inch Nails' Tension Tour in 2013, it was without question the best show I had seen the entire year. The night still lingers in my memory as one of the most enthralling performances I have ever taken in. The impact was enough to change the very way I perceive and approach Reznor and his music.
Tension's production aesthetic was virtually infallible. Every song was accompanied by ethereal, dynamic environments and accented with visuals that ebbed, flowed, and coalesced seamlessly with the music. At times, the stage appeared a vision ripped from the pages of science fiction, though it never remained in one particular way for too long. The performances given by Reznor and the world-class team of sonic athletes he painstakingly assembled to breathe fire into his music were downright inspirational. However, the most remarkable thing about the show was how well it brought cohesion to the favored ghosts of Nine Inch Nails' past and the fresh blood of Hesitation Marks.
Admittedly, I went into the show not entirely sold on Hesitation Marks. The album was received with mixed reviews by the music press, and older fans in my own circle of friends seemed to unanimously hate it. Some went so far as to proclaim it a proper death knell for the Misfit King we once knew. The album was still quite new at the time.
Yet, much as NME's staff recently found itself swayed into self-proclaimed superfandom by Lana Del Rey's "heartbreaking" Glastonbury performance, the Tension performance displayed Reznor's new material with an intensity that couldn't be ignored or really experienced when simply listening to the album on its own. Things on the record that hadn't previously struck as unique — like the funky, off-kilter guitar stabs that drive "All Time Low" or the faint, jutting percussion that ripples through the moody "Find My Way" — grew powerful and enchanting live. The little details and clever, unexpected touches that are so distinctly Reznor were brought to a zenith in that setting. In turn, the record went on to find a new life for me, as much a document of Reznor's reinvention as an affirmation that a mature and sober Trent Reznor can still say something relevant and unique. Beyond that, it was suddenly apparent that if any new artist not strapped to the anchor of a mythically loved past had put out Hesitation Marks in 2013, it would have undoubtedly been considered record of the year.
Toward the end of the NIN show last year, Reznor was joined onstage by his opener, synth-rock pioneer Gary Numan. Numan's set was made up almost entirely of tracks from his late career releases. All of them sounded more like an unabashed homage to Reznor's '90s output than anything you'd expect from the man who once helped define the synth-rock sound. As Numan, with his nu-hair and young clothes, choked a microphone into submission alongside the musclebound and groomed Reznor during "Reptile," it felt feigned. It felt uncomfortable. It was as if Numan were chasing career youth, having a midlife crisis onstage, complete with edgy, chunky guitars and NIN signature synth patches playing the roles of face-lifts and breast implants. An icon in his own right and a hero of Reznor's, Numan had forsaken the identity he created for himself over the years in an attempt to remain relevant, instead becoming a prime example of failed reinvention.
To see someone as influential as Numan so aggressively chasing the fruit Reznor has grown from the seeds of his own influence was difficult. But it showed what Reznor pulled off with this chapter of his career. The Hesitation Marks period we're currently experiencing will eventually be looked back upon with much kinder eyes. Reznor succeeded in pulling off the Bowie-like reinvention he was after: the kind that allows an artist with a track record of brilliance to make new works without battling his or her past achievements at every corner.
The "green suit" era of Bowie's '80s career was not met with universal praise at the time, yet that portion of the Thin White Duke's life is now romanticized by fans young and old, somehow existing in harmony with the edginess Bowie once represented in previous iterations. Just like Never Let Me Down and the "Dancing in the Street" music video don't come into play anymore when Bowie releases something new, Reznor will hopefully be allowed a fresh start by fans with this newest, courageous release.
And if you're still on the fence with the album or even if you actually (think you) hate it, you should still go see Nine Inch Nails when they come to town with Soundgarden this Sunday. Allow yourself to be swayed into loving the new tunes, or at least vibe out on one of the most incredible visual productions you can see in 2014 and pay homage to a future legend that has made it through the fire in brilliant style.