Between his musclebound makeover, flawless “farewell tour,” palate-cleansing side projects (How to Destroy Angels’ end-of-days elegies, several sessions with Queens of the Stone Age, a couple of solid David Fincher soundtracks) and some long-overdue props from The Man (a peerless New Yorker profile, the Oscar that now sits on a mantle next to Nine Inch Nails’ two dusty GRAMMYs), the Second Coming of Trent Reznor shouldn’t be the least bit surprising. And yet, Hesitation Marks exceeds even the loftiest expectations by signaling Reznor’s sober sally years with some of his most subtle but satisfying work to date. It’s as if he was sharpening his sample banks and synth lines with How to Destroy Angels, only to emerge with material that alludes to everything from death-disco (the groove-locked guitars of “All Time Low”) to acid-techno (the snake-like leads of “Copy of A”) to Reznor’s own impressive oeuvre (the rubber-bullet beats that hammer “Came Back Haunted” home). The notorious perfectionist — witness the fear on everyone’s faces in Vevo’s new tour documentary to see what we mean — clearly knows it too. Why else would he have brought such long-forgotten old friends as David Lynch and Downward Spiral cover artist Russell Mills back into the fold, giving Hesitation Marks both a seizure-inducing music video (“Came Back Haunted”) and several different fluid-splattered record sleeves?
So, yes, this is a return-to-form record in every way, although it must be said that Reznor never strayed too far from his roots at any point in his 25-year career, including the drug-damaged days he spent fighting his own demons in New Orleans. More importantly, while he’s a healthy, (relatively) happy father of two — living in Beverly Hills, no less — those thorns never left his side. Reznor may be willing to clean up his act for the love of his life in “I Would for You,” but remember, this is also an album that’s named after suicide scars. Reznor is still as complicated as ever, and he’s entering what may become his golden age as a result.