Retirement never suited Trent Reznor. A workaholic who tempers his obsessive nature with a healthy streak of perfectionism, Reznor has put Nine Inch Nails in hibernation before, but the difference between the five years separating 2013's Hesitation Marks and 2008's The Slip and his previous extended gaps -- the half-decade between 1994's The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, the six years between The Fragile and 2005's With Teeth -- is that Reznor didn't go into seclusion, he merely stepped away from NIN. David Fincher drafted him to score The Social Network in 2010 -- Trent received an Academy Award for his trouble -- and that same year he formed How to Destroy Angels with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross and Mariqueen Maandig. Echoes of these two projects can be heard within the disciplined, detailed Hesitation Marks but much of the album's measured mood derives from the great settling within Reznor's personal life. He married Maandig in 2009 and subsequently had two children, so he's a decidedly different musician in 2013 than he was in 1993: he's not the tortured, angry young rebel struggling with addictions and angst, he's a sober family man. Sobriety centered Reznor and working in other capacities reinvigorated him, leading to the masterful Hesitation Marks, where he cannily evokes the past within the cloak of the future while focusing on the present. Certainly, Hesitation Marks brings to mind some of the earliest Nine Inch Nails records, particularly in how it's built upon actual danceable rhythms, but the sonic palette is brighter and broader than either Pretty Hate Machine or The Downward Spiral, feeling expansive even when it's punctuated with jarring, jagged bursts of electric noise and bursts of clustered beats. Reznor enlisted a bunch of art rock vets to help achieve this coiled, cloistered sound -- King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and bassist Pino Palladino play often, Lindsey Buckingham throws in some guitar; on the deluxe edition, Todd Rundgren Utopia-fies "All Time Low" with layers of harmonies -- and the additional musicians help keep the album open. Even if "Everything" -- a surprising power pop rush that's easily the most exuberant Nine Inch Nails has ever sounded -- was excised, Hesitation Marks would qualify as the most hopeful NIN album ever. Pain still punctuates the lyrics, Reznor still slides into moody black pools of sound, but there is no wallowing here, no fetishization of darkness. There is shade and light within Reznor's immaculate constructions, there is the ebb and flow of life, there is joy within the sheer sheets of sound. Hesitation Marks makes it quite clear that Trent Reznor is no longer an angry young man but rather a restless, inventive artist who is at peace with himself, and the result is a record that provides real, lasting nourishment.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine