While I’m Still Here

  • Reading time:5 mins read

Since 2005 Nine Inch Nails has been a discussion between two characters: the man who Trent Reznor feels he is deep inside, or who he once was, or very much wants to be; and the man who he became in the 1990s. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them True Trent and Demon Trent.

His work of the last decade is a patchwork of self-rediscovery. Gone are the meticulous soundscapes and concept albums (Year Zero aside), and with them departs the familiar “Trent Reznor” character, the protagonist of self-destructive operas like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. In their place we have a mix of baffled confessional and therapy, and outward-looking projects like Year Zero and Ghosts.

Though the latter are interesting, it’s in the former that the core Nine Inch Nails narrative — by which I mean Reznor’s endless introspection — continues. To that end, let’s narrow our focus to With Teeth and The Slip.

On these albums, generally True Trent assumes the role of narrator. In songs like “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” and “Echoplex” he deals with the boredom and creeping emptiness of a sober life. While he spent a decade in a bottle, his world had moved on and left him behind. Come 2005 he was out of the darkness, older on the outside. Inside, though, where there should have been years of growth and wisdom and personal experiences, there was just a fuzzy emotional void — the space where his demon had sat, and the open portal through which it could, at any time, return.

Notice here the use of pronouns. If in these songs there is a “you”, chances are that it refers to Demon Trent. At times the switch flips, and Demon Trent takes charge of “I”, with True Trent demoted to “you”. Depending on the song this interplay can be playful, or earnest, or frustrated, or defeated. The discussion is possibly at is most obvious in “Only”, itself a dry parody, or 2005 revamp, of “Down In It”:

I just made you up to hurt myself, yeah
And I just made you up to hurt myself
And it worked.
Yes it did!

There is no you
There is only me
There is no you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me
There is no fucking you
There is only me

It is in this context that Hesitation Marks operates as an album. Take the character from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile (with his accordingly lavish soundscape), and filter him through the themes of With Teeth, and you have the basic story.

The album began as a pair of tracks — the initially-baffling “Everything”, and the hip-hop influenced “Satellite” — for a long-delayed “best of” record; according to Reznor, everything else grew out of that material. If you consider the basic discussion of modern-day Nine Inch Nails, that totally makes sense.

“Everything” is a cry of incautious, (as Reznor put it) arrogant victory. “I survived everything”, he sings in the verse. “Wave goodbye / wish me well / I’ve become something else”. But then the strange, dissonant chorus hits — and under all the noise we get a different story. “But this thing that lives inside of me / will surely rise and wake”.

This is the nature of addiction, especially over as long a period as Reznor suffered; it never leaves you, and in its absence one needs an exhausting, constant vigilance. Let down your guard for a moment, and you relapse, and you’re back where you started.

Indeed, after that show of arrogance, in the very next track Reznor switches characters:

I’m watching you
I’m one step ahead
I’m part of you
I’m inside your head

This interplay forms the basic story of the album. Years later, the man from those earlier albums returns. He makes an earnest effort to shed his demons and reclaim ownership over himself. For a while he seems to make progress. Yet what he fails to understand is that his demons will never, ever go away. He will never win, not entirely. If he chooses to fight, then the fight will be forever.

I’ve got to let it go
I’ve got to get straight
why’d you have to make it so hard
let me get away

One of the intriguing and frustrating elements is that it can be very difficult to tell who is speaking any given line. Some songs seem to be a call and response between the two Trents, while others are entirely one or the other. As part of this structure there is actually a little sympathy for Demon Trent. He’s just doing what he does, and doesn’t totally understand why True Trent is rejecting him.

There are some ups and downs. “All Time Low” seems to be about Demon Trent’s attempts to seduce Real Trent. “In Two” is about a drastic measure that Real Trent takes to cleanse himself. In the end it is unclear quite what happens. It appears that our man’s energy runs out, and he is unable to maintain the fight — though which man can we assume is speaking?

Only thing I’ve ever done
Closest I have ever come
Oh so tired on my own
Best days I have ever known

Apparently as he sings “the world” ends… and as it burns he continues to hang on, watching, reflecting.

well I don’t mind
I’m ok
wish it didn’t have to end this way

As the world roars and fades into oblivion, we hear someone honking playfully on a baritone sax. If the voice we’re listening to is True Trent, the sense that we get is, well, at least he tried. If this is goodbye, then it is a gentle one. He understands the situation and what he’s up against, and for all of his regrets he has accepted defeat. At least, for now.