Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Kanye West, "Yeezus"; Nine Inch Nails, "Hesitation Marks"

"On Sight", the first track on "Yeezus", explodes out of the blocks with abrasive industrial noise that I never would have expected from on a Kanye West album.  And that's taking into account his past and current collaborations with Daft Punk.  This isn't like Darren Price producing a Madonna record in his own image, this is something funkier and meaner than anything Daft Punk would have conceived on their own.  "On Sight" shocks you to attention and forces you to notice it from its first moments onward, which is something I haven't been able to say about a Nine Inch Nails record since "Broken".

And yet, despite the obvious nods and outright theft from industrial music (NIN included), "Yeezus" isn't the kind of album that makes you want to play a game of spot the influences.  He's captured the mood of the genre, twisted it in new shapes, and forced it to conform to something resembling a Kanye West album. Sure, "I'm In It" makes me think of "Down In It" (especially the intro), but as a whole, I don't find myself wondering which Skinny Puppy album inspired a certain bassline or what have you.  Techno producers have plenty to be jealous about here too. "I'm a God", with it's layers of echo, oddly processed guitar sounds, and stomach churning, cavernous bass, could be credited as a Dubfire track featuring Kanye West and nobody would doubt it for a moment.  "Send It Up" brings back 80's industrial thudding and OTT rave sirens to contemporary music, and not a moment too soon. West's attempts at connecting industrial, EDM, and hip hop don't always fit together so smoothly, for instance, the bruising robofunk bridge on "Bound 2" seems unnecessary, a complete non sequiteur in the midst of a mellow 70's soul number.  But for the most part, this is another startlingly creative home run for Kanye West.


"With Teeth" is clearly the album that kicked open the door for the second act of Trent Reznor's career.  "Hesitation Marks" probably could have been made at any time in the past ten years, there's nothing particularly contemporary about it and that's the entire point of it  (i.e. it's the album where he returns to his late 80's/early 90's heyday, except older, wiser, and mellower).  But if this album is released in 2003 then he's likely labeled as a 90's burnout trying to hang on and stay relevant.  Instead, Reznor disappeared for a long time following "The Fragile", returned with an armful of stories about how he'd been to the brink and lived to tell about it (who can resist that narrative in music?), and an album that sounded nothing like his earlier work.  It was different enough not to draw too many comparisons to anything on "The Downward Spiral", but still recognizable as a NIN album.  Gone was the pressure of having to make each record more shocking and more extreme than the one before it, and so much of "With Teeth" and its more rock-influenced tracks fit in well with alternative radio of the time, without rocking the boat too much.  He was now a Reliable Artist -- no longer representing the vanguard of new music, but someone who could be counted on for a decent slate of songs and an energetic tour every few years.  And for artists who sold millions in the sales inflated 90's, that's a recipe for doing healthy arena tours from now until retirement age.

The success of "With Teeth" also left room for Reznor to escape his 90's image, an image that easily could have been turned into a caricature like with so many 80's hair metal bands.  It left him free to do what he wanted without feeling pressed to make a Nine Inch Nails (TM) album each time out.  Not five years later, this former junkie and 90's relic, best known in mainstream circles for singing "I want to fuck you like an animal" in heavy rotation on MTV (bleeped during the daytime of course) and performing at Woodstock '94, was a respected Oscar winning soundtrack composer.  It boggles the mind just thinking about it.  

I do play a lot of spot the influences when I listen to "Hesitation Marks".  "Copy of A" sounds like the new "Sin", although a better comparison might be the style of electronic blues that Depeche Mode have been doing (and doing better that Reznor) on their last two albums.  "Find My Way" contains elements of "Something I Can Never Have", ditto "Running" and "Ringfinger".  In many ways it's a very safe album for Reznor to make, although I can't fault his timing in wanting to get back to writing the kinds of songs he does best and recalling his glory years a bit.  Parts of "Hesistation Marks" are great, but mostly it's just reliably good NIN music, and honestly, that's enough.  

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