There are two reasons that Trent Reznor, the 48-year-old backbone of Nine Inch Nails, is worshipped. First, there is his group's second album, 1994's The Downward Spiral, which remains the ultimate soundtrack for every angry teenager needing music with which to piss off their parents. Reznor has said that, when recording it, he had "an unending bottomless pit of rage and self-loathing inside me". As such, he became a hero for every kid who hated "the system".
The band's calling card was Closer, arguably their biggest song to date. Blunt and heavy with menace, it begins: "You let me violate you, you let me desecrate you", before Reznor snarls that unignorable refrain, the one full of frisson for everyone who sang along: "I want to fuck you like an animal."
NIN lyrics have always been crude, but then Reznor is also capable of writing a song as indelible as Hurt. It took Johnny Cash's careworn baritone to cast that track as timeless ballad rather than emo whine, but the song showed that Reznor was not just some rage-head noisemaker: he was, and is, more subtle a writer and musician than the band's shorthand description as "industrial rock" suggests.
The second reason Reznor is venerated as a cultural icon is down to plain endurance. He has overcome cocaine and alcohol addiction, been namechecked by Time magazine as one of its 25 "most influential Americans" and in 2011 landed an Academy award, winning best original score for his soundtrack to The Social Network.
Now, 25 years after founding the band, he's also a married father of two. Domestic circumstances might seem irrelevant to the kind of music anyone makes, but when your entire modus operandi has been about annoying parents, becoming one yourself is pertinent. This record sounds exactly like a negotiation between those two Reznor modes: angst-belter and sophisticate; the rage-oaf and the artist.
Hesitation Marks is the first Nine Inch Nails album since 2008's The Slip, which was released online free accompanied by Reznor's message: "This one's on me." This one, however, is on Columbia – a backsliding of sorts, since Reznor vowed in 2007 to release material independently. That mellowing and compromise is echoed in the sound: the squalling guitars have been refined a little and the band sound more minimal and electronic than ever.
Fans will be familiar with a couple of tracks already, both of which are surprising. Copy of A, released last month, possesses a burbling, itchy synth line, while more perplexing still is its follow-up, the hearty college rock of Everything. Reznor's voice, however, hasn't changed, veering between hard man of rawk growl and needling adolescent whine.
The musician is famously exacting when it comes to sound and, predictably, the album is impeccably produced. What's shocking, though, is that at moments it sounds – whisper it – delicate.