Hard As Nails?

It all began with a short conversation we were having in the car about the Laura Marling album, Once I Was An Eagle. I said I rather liked it. And indeed I had. Marling made her debut album at 18. That was five years ago, which means she is just 23 now but on this year’s Once I Was An Eagle, she sounds so incredibly mature. My daughter’s understated response to that was what can best be described as “meh”. Marling was good, she said, but clearly she wasn’t as enthused by this new album. What then, I asked, was she listening to? The new Nine Inch Nails record, Hesitation Marks, she replied with much more enthusiasm than what she had shown for Marling.

I hadn’t heard Nine Inch Nails (NIN) in years. In fact, I don’t think I had dipped into their repertoire (or rather Trent Reznor’s, since much of their studio albums are akin to being his solo work – meticulously layered industrial music where electronic blends with rock) after the late 1990s. I was a bit surprised as well, because when I first heard The Downward Spiral, arguably NIN’s best and most shockingly angry record in 1994, my daughter was certainly around but aged around zero in years. And now she was digging NIN. Then again I’m no longer surprised by my kids’ taste in music. The younger one, who is not yet 10, likes to do homework with The Beatles in the background and her favourite T-shirt is the one with a Yellow Submarine motif. Anyway, I got hold of Hesitation Marks.

Trent Reznor is the driving force of the band Nine Inch Nails Photo: Getty Images

Trent Reznor is the driving force of the band Nine Inch Nails Photo: Getty Images

It isn’t anything like The Downward Spiral. Of course it has the trademark industrial sound, right from the default first full track, Copy of A, a lively hook-laden tune that urges you to tap your foot, bob your head and well, even dance. Contrast that with the angry, opening track on The Downward Spiral, whose first notes I always thought sound like Reznor either beating himself or getting someone to flagellate him. That opening number, Mr. Self Destruct, set the tone for The Downward Spiral, a record that when you first listen to can shake you up with its distorted noise and aggressively violent lyrics, all layered with electronic beats but also strangely combining to make it at the same time very melodic. If you try to buy The Downward Spiral in the Indian iTunes store (I had to because my 20-year-old tapes are dead and buried), you’ll only get it without one of the songs, Closer. Is it because the lyrics of Closer are particularly graphic? I wonder.

Copy of A sets the tone for the rest of Hesitation Marks, an album that couldn’t be more different and yet similar to The Downward Spiral. Reznor is no longer angry, screaming, loud and self-destructive. Incredibly, he even sounds happy, albeit a tad bemused. My favourite song on the album is Satellite, which builds up, layer by layer, to perfection as does Disappointed, another great track. There are the odd ones too on the album, like Everything, whose pop brightness is out of sorts with the rest.

After two listens to the 14 tracks (technically the first track is Eater of Dreams, a 52-second composition), I realised what had happened. Reznor, now 48, had grown up. No longer was he the angry, young man of the 1990s but, as he sings on Copy of A, he’s “just a copy of a copy of a copy/Everything I say has come before…” It’s a great transition. And, for me, it offers a good opportunity to revisit NIN’s discography – the seven studio albums that came before Hesitation Marks (the last one, The Slip, was out five years ago) and gauge how this very talented musician has changed, beginning with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine to his latest. On Hesitation Marks, there are surprise bonuses. You’ll find Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham doing fret duty on a few tracks besides NIN’s familiar collaborators such as Alessandro Cortini on the synthesizer, and Pino Palladino on the bass, Palladino being John Entwistle’s replacement in the iconic British rock band, The Who.

British musician Laura Marling is like a young Joni Mitchell Photo: Getty Images

British musician Laura Marling is like a young Joni Mitchell Photo: Getty Images

But Nine Inch Nails is all about Reznor, a perfectionist and musician of many parts. Even when NIN went on a break after 2008’s The Slip, Reznor stayed active. He started another band, How To Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and worked on film soundtracks. One of them, The Social Network, got him an Oscar.

To get back to what I began with, while it is hard to imagine NIN fans grooving to Laura Marling’s new album, Once I Was An Eagle, it is lovely. Recorded around the time the young British indie folk singer decided to relocate to the US and was also possibly getting over a broken relationship, it is like a themed concept album. And it’s brilliant. Marling, whose songs belie her age, reminds me of a young Joni Mitchell. A very contemporary Joni Mitchell.

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