In the summer of 2009, Nine Inch Nails bade farewell with a certain amount of fanfare. The band mounted a tour called “Wave Goodbye,” which culminated with a handful of back-to-the-roots club shows in Los Angeles. I got to go to one of those shows, and it was awesome – and definitely carried an air of finality. It was hard to imagine seeing frontman Trent Reznor, then approaching his mid-40s, onstage screaming “Head Like a Hole” or “Closer.”
Reznor obviously hasn’t gotten any younger since then and is now closing in on 50 years old. Yet Nine Inch Nails are back, and it’s like they never left. Reznor reconvened the group to record a very fine new album, “Hesitation Marks” (Columbia Records), which debuted in the top 10 last month. And they’re on a big-venue tour that plays Raleigh’s PNC Arena Monday night.
Ask Reznor about his previous leave-taking, however, and he says he meant it at the time.
“I really did believe that was it,” Reznor says, calling from a Kansas City tour stop. “I expected I’d someday write again as Nine Inch Nails, but I didn’t think it would involve going back on a full tour of any sort. We were coming off a long four-year cycle where we’d toured almost continuously, and it felt like I had done everything I could with it. I needed to force myself into some other things I never had time for. I did do some other things, from scoring films to starting another band to starting a family. But something always takes me back, it seems like. Collectively, all those things put me in a place where I was feeling inspired. It started with a couple of songs, which felt like they belonged under the Nine Inch Nails banner, which unexpectedly led to an album and the inevitable tour. And here we are.”
Thus we have “Hesitation Marks,” which in some ways feels like as much of a roots move as those 2009 club shows. Sonically, it has more in common with 1980s-vintage Depeche Mode, say, than the electronic dance music that Reznor’s many imitators have come along with in recent years.
Not that anyone will mistake “Hesitation Marks” for “Up With People,” but it’s less sonically menacing than what you might expect from Reznor. And one of its songs – “Everything,” which summarizes Reznor’s former wild life by starting off, “I survived/Everything” – might be the most straightforwardly poppy song he’s ever done.
“There were a few moments of this album where I expected eyebrows to raise,” Reznor says. “But that actually was not one of them. To me, ‘Everything’ is a descendant of Fear and Joy Division and New Order. Somehow, that song has become representative of this as my ‘happy album,’ although I don’t hear it as such. It’s certainly not meant to make you feel like, ‘Look at how great everything is!’ But it seems to be the shocking moment of the record. We’ve not played it onstage, only in rehearsals. It’s become an irritant to me.”
You might also not see Reznor doing any more soundtrack work anytime soon. One of his undertakings during Nine Inch Nails’ hiatus was film-scoring, for which he won an Academy Award for 2010’s “The Social Network.” That landed him on the biggest stage in show business, which was a surreal experience.
“I keep my Oscar in a very traditional place, over the fireplace,” he says. “The Oscars were great and felt like a very strange dream, although the run-up was disappointing – over 100 events, several months of screenings with Q&A sessions and things like that. Then at the event itself, there was the weirdness of being surrounded by the competition. Then I hear my name called. ‘OK,’ I think, ‘don’t trip. Get up, turn around, walk,’ all in this weird slo-mo. I get onstage and holy (expletive), Nicole Kidman is like nine-and-a-half-feet tall. I look out and recognize every person in the audience. ‘There’s Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and they’re all looking at you.’ And there’s this giant countdown clock going 20-19-18 … The numbers turn red when it gets below 10. They might let Christian Bale ramble on, but you know the music guy won’t be allowed to do that.
“It was an incredibly intense 30 seconds.”
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