There has to be some term for the Generation X alt-rock dude who has a huge bank account, big-time awards, what appears to be a happy and creatively fulfilling marriage, and has managed to stay relevant while his contemporaries all start searching for scab musicians to play the latest small-club reunion tour, yet he still hurts, he still sins, and he is still “ha-ha-haunted.”
I guess that term would be “Trent Reznor.”
Hesitation Marks, the latest Nine Inch Nails album, is the best thing Reznor has done under that moniker in the new century — musically. Listening to it a few times, I was struck by the fact that, had Reznor skipped adding vocal tracks to the record, its quality would have been comparable to his Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Social Network. But nope, he felt the need to add his angsty lyrics — pretty much the same ones that inspired a million teenage poets in the 1990s — because I guess if anybody has stuff to be upset about, it’s Trent Reznor.
“Everything is not okay. We lost too much along the way,” Reznor sings on the track “All Time Low.” And yeah, it’s true: we as an American culture have lost a lot, and things are totally not OK, what with war and unemployment and Bunheads being canceled prematurely; things are straight-up fucked. But that isn’t what he’s singing about; instead, we’re left to decipher his lyrics and worry that the middle-aged Reznor remains the unhappiest man on the planet, despite his success.
Now, here’s the paradox: if not for the bleak lyrics over his compositions, what the hell would Reznor do? It would be weird if the guy who wrote “Hurt” (alas, it wasn’t Johnny Cash) did a total 180 and started singing out how wonderful life is, because that’s just not his thing. Nine Inch Nails doesn’t have to become a bubblegum pop band; I just think Reznor needs to consider whether or not his work under that name still feels genuine. When he put Nine Inch Nails in the closet — or, to use the music industry euphemism, “on hiatus” — it seemed like he was ready to concentrate on other projects and move on to a new stage of his career. That didn’t stick, although I wish it had. Reznor should stop constraining himself to the same lyrical territory he’s been treading since George Bush Sr. was president, while writing far superior music. Who knows what he could accomplish if he stopped being so bummed out?