*** (out of four stars). Columbia. In stores Tuesday.
'I came back," Trent Reznor sings on the lead single to Hesitation Marks (Columbia ***), the first new album from Nine Inch Nails in five years. "I came back haunted."
Well, of course he did.
How else would you expect Reznor to come back? Content? At peace? Happy as a clam?
Not a chance. You would expect Reznor, 48, the Mercer, Pa., native who made industrial-rock suitable for mass consumption with the 1989 breakthrough album Pretty Hate Machine and its 1994 successor The Downward Spiral, to return from a half-decade absence agitated, unsettled, and existentially tormented.
In the years since the experimental The Slip in 2008, Reznor - who closes out the Budweiser Made in America festival Sunday night with a slow-building NIN stage show he says is inspired by the Talking Heads' iconic concert film Stop Making Sense - has concentrated on working with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, in the band How to Destroy Angels. He has also scored the movies The Social Network (for which he won an Oscar) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (snagging a Golden Globe and a Grammy).
By his own account, the dark prince of '90s alt-rock is now a reasonably contented man, a father of two sons who, he told Spin magazine, say Daddy's job is "go play loud rock music."
It is. And that loud rock music is now apt to portray its auteur as a man who has endured despite bouts with depression and drug use. The guy who wrote the words to The Downward Spiral's deeply wounded "Hurt" ("I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel") and lived to tell about it. As he puts it in the almost bouncy, New-Wave flavored "Everything": "I have survived everything / I have tried everything."
The key to NIN's popularity has always been catharsis, and a lean, clean sound that distills techno, industrial, and hard rock into downright catchy music that you can shake your fist to and shout along with. Even at his most self-loathing, going back to "Head Like a Hole" on Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor has always sounded like the nihilist next door who dresses in black, but is a tidy housekeeper and pays his bills on time.
Which is not meant to denigrate or diminish the power of the music he makes. And on Hesitation Marks, he's clearly energized, with itchy, finger-on-the trigger rhythms propelling everything with forceful momentum.
That goes on synth-powered, ready-for-the-dance-floor middle-aged angsters like "Came Back Haunted" and when he varies the attack with the swoony soul vocals and slowed-down groove of "All Time Low." Without getting too specific, that song's concerns appear political as well as personal. "Hey," Reznor's echoed voice reminds us. "Everything is not OK / We lost something along the way."
Hesitation Marks, which features guest contributions from guitarists Lindsey Buckingham and Adrian Belew as well as bassist Pino Palladino, takes its title from the marks often found alongside suicidal knife wounds.
The album is ultimately about pulling back from the brink and embracing existence, albeit after attempting "Various Means of Escape," to name the title of one of the sloggier tunes that drag the hour-long album down toward the end.
With the lonely search for an authentic self on his to-do list, Reznor structures several songs like "Copy of A" and "Find My Way" as spare sojourns in which he's on the lookout for meaning as he moves down a twisted, treacherous path.
But like Kurt Cobain, his early '90s contemporary who was similarly successful at making a mass audience feel his pain, Reznor has always been a master of dynamics. Those songs that start out slow and tense almost always wind up delivering an explosive emotional payoff, especially on stage.
That's why - even though his music remains consumed by trouble and worry - NIN is still well suited to closing out an oversized music fest like Made in America.