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Nine Inch Nails came back haunted

Trent Reznor emerges scarred but smarter with Hesitation Marks

Trent Reznor has built a successful career out of battling his rather formidable demons. Throughout the '90s and much of the aughts, Nine Inch Nails, Reznor's chief creative outlet, reigned as a pillar of the alternative-rock movement, partly due to an accessible if unsettling merger of industrial dance music and guitar-driven rock, but mostly due to Reznor's songwriting. Often graphic and always emotionally baring, hits like "Head Like a Hole," "Closer," and "Hurt" created vivid and visceral portraits of his struggles with baser instincts: lust, fury, bitterness, and despair.

But in the years since releasing his last album, 2008's The Slip, Reznor seemed to get his demons under control; he even married and fathered two sons. So it began to seem increasingly plausible that his hiatus from Nine Inch Nails might become permanent. After all, he had a new band, How to Destroy Angels (which also features his wife, Mariqueen Maandig). More to the point, his true talent has always been his ability to create music that perfectly manifests his inner turmoil — that brings his demons to life. Could an artist pushing 50, with a new family and newfound success in other fields (most notably an Academy Award for his score to David Fincher's film The Social Network), mine something provocative and interesting from contentment?

Reznor began working on new material last year, and signed a deal with major label Columbia, perhaps signaling a desire to return Nine Inch Nails to a level of commercial and cultural dominance it hadn't enjoyed since 2005's With Teeth. Still, the question lingered: Would it be possible not just to revive the Nine Inch Nails brand, but to create something that would live up to his formidable past work?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. Hesitation Marks proves that despite marriage and fatherhood, Reznor is still driven to wring art, and meaning, from his experiences. He may no longer be plagued by substance abuse issues, but he's still addicted to plumbing the depths of his own complicated, if not quite tortured, soul. Hesitation Marks sounds like a classic Nine Inch Nails album, albeit one tempered by age and insight. There are familiar lyrical themes, to be sure — obsession, ghosts of past misdeeds, walls closing in, and time running out. But there's little of the churning tension or manic primal scream therapy that made Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral such taut, anxious listening experiences; the sense of menace here is less obvious, although no less present. It's there in the '80s dark wave echoes of "Came Back Haunted," and in the way Adrian Belew's twitchy guitar line snakes through the slow-burning "All Time Low."

The music does occasionally nod to the past; the chorus of "Various Methods of Escape" sounds as if it could have sprung from the sessions for The Downward Spiral or With Teeth. But Reznor paints from a broader palette here, incorporating a mélange of sounds and styles, from the sleek, robotic funk of "Satellite" to the jarringly poppy groove of "Everything."

It's telling, perhaps, that when Reznor discards the album's mood of restraint, it's on the latter anthem, as a new wave riff that evokes the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" or the Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" gives way to a towering Berlin Wall of sound. Reznor sings of enduring trials ("I survived everything/I have tried everything") and coming out the other side transformed ("I have become something else;" "I am whole, I am free"), but it's the sunny harmonies and bright, even euphoric delivery that drive the point home, even as they create an entirely new kind of disquiet for listeners not used to such positive vibrations.

Like the titular reminders of a suicide attempt, Hesitation Marks sends a clear message that there are still monsters lurking beneath the surface of Trent Reznor's psyche. But while he may not have tamed them, he's learned from his struggles, and emerged scarred but smarter.