"The Downward Spiral," Mr. Reznor's 1994 masterpiece that contemplated self-destruction and suicide during a period of personal and career turmoil; it became Nine Inch Nails' musical and commercial breakthrough.
"Hesitation Marks" was a year of patient effort. Mr. Reznor composed music on his laptop, using it largely as a drum machine and coming up with austere, brittle, sneakily evolving grooves. "It feels sparse, and it feels minimal," he said. "It's hard for me to do that. I've realized over the years that if I have 100 tracks, I'll use 110 tracks. This was really about economy. It was just a weird puzzle of grooves."
And in the context of the Nine Inch Nails catalog, where a whisper tends to lead, sooner or later, to a scream, Mr. Reznor found himself following other impulses. "It didn't dawn on me until I was almost done with the record that I don't really even raise my voice on this album that much," Mr. Reznor added. "The mechanism of screaming choruses doesn't exist here. And that wasn't by design."
He said: "I don't think it's a gentle record. I do think it's more subversive in how it gets you. It's not about everything being at 11 and the pyrotechnics of sound and scare tactics, which I've definitely used in the past. But it doesn't feel like the middle-aged, I've-given-up record either."
-- Jon Pareles
Mr. Reznor, 48, has been a taboo-smashing songwriter with music that meticulously blends melody and abrasion, ferocity and detail. Since 1989, when Nine Inch Nails released its debut album, "Pretty Hate Machine," Mr. Reznor has been recording songs that exorcise pain, fear and rage as they embrace extremes. In the 1990s, he melded styles that had segregated themselves -- electronica, punk, metal, pop melody -- to give voice to bitter alienation and self-lacerating fury, the urge to annihilate himself or the world. His music can be ominous, brutal, danceable, noisy and still, amid the fray, tuneful. In the studio, the band is largely Mr. Reznor on his own; for tours, he hires band members to rework his meticulous productions as visceral live rock.
"My incentive originally for making music was just a way to cathartically get this out," Mr. Reznor said. "Then I discovered, in the process of doing it, that some ugliness led to some element of beauty. And the process made me feel better. And then when I saw people responded to it and could relate to it -- I'm projecting here, but they may have felt less alone."
But the pressures Mr. Reznor put on himself in his 20s were overwhelming. As he was making albums that would influence a generation of musicians, he succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse until, in 2001, he went through rehab and sobered up. It was, he said, "threat of death, gun to your head -- do this or you're going to die."