Nine Inch Nails Break Their Mold On The Fragile

By Gil Kaufman for Sonicnet on September 1, 1999

Double album chronicles the usual depression and rage, but with different kind of sound.

After five years of virtual silence, Nine Inch Nails are set to return Tuesday (Sept. 21) with a sprawling two-CD set that plumbs bandleader Trent Reznor's seemingly endless well of despair but also seeks to smash the paradigm of industrial music Reznor built more than a decade ago.

The Fragile, with 17 pop songs and six instrumentals, is a roller coaster ride of emotion framed by warm-sounding pianos, mountains of buzzsaw guitars and the requisite pounding industrial beats.

What's changed on NIN's third studio album, which arrives half a decade after the second, The Downward Spiral, is how Reznor created those beats.

Rather than the robotic, mechanical thwack of programmed drums that propelled such early hits as "Head Like a Hole" (RealAudio excerpt), much of The Fragile features what sound like live drums ? and they are even more ominous and bombastic than their computer counterparts.

The percussion in the warm, organic "I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally" may be hands slapping a cement floor, while the title track, an almost sentimental love song, juxtaposes groaning, fuzzed-out guitars with a beat that appears to be metal chains dropping to a cement floor.

What hasn't changed is Reznor's sharp-edged introspective nature. Songs on The Fragile trace a trail of betrayal and the feelings of loss and anger that follow in their wake.

"I tend to overthink things and overanalyze," Reznor was quoted as saying in a Sept. 19 New York Times article.

"For The Downward Spiral [1994], there was rigid set of guidelines," he said, describing that album as a brutal, icy affair that had an armor-like shell to keep the listener out. "With this record, the framework and the guideline was complete train-of-thought subconscious ? you go where the music takes you."

"The only real conceptual thing was the title, The Fragile," he continued. "I knew that before I started. I didn't want it to be a shiny slick machine, I didn't want it to be tough."

The 34-year-old singer's new vulnerability can be felt from the 104-minute album's haunting first sound, the four-note acoustic-guitar loop that opens "Somewhat Damaged." The tranquility doesn't last long; a pounding, metronomic beat and throbbing bass soon overtake the acoustic sound with layers of destructive, grinding noise building up until the song sounds like a broken machine eating itself from the inside out.

"Somewhat Damaged" is one of several tracks in which Reznor seemingly deals with another of the album's major themes, the fear of inflated expectations and the desire to hide from those pressures. "In the back off the side far away/ Is where I hide where I stay," he sings, proclaiming himself "too fucked up to care anymore."

Reznor, The Fragile's co-producer and primary musician, weaves in classical, baroque piano interludes ("The Frail"), hip-hop beats ("Where Is Everybody") and soaring industrial rock ("We're in This Together" [RealAudio excerpt]) over the course of the album.

Former King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew brings a little of his former band's prog-rock grandeur to the ominous tribal techno instrumental "Just Like You Imagined" and the ambient creepfest "The Great Below," which ends disc one.

David Bowie/Smashing Pumpkins pianist Mike Garson adds chaotic minor-key trills to the former, and to "The Way Out Is Through," a slow-boil whisper-to-a-scream horror movie of a song that opens disc two. The album also features the hauting single "The Day The World Went Away" (RealAudio excerpt).

In perhaps the most surprising collaboration, gangsta-rap producer and MC Dr. Dre is credited with helping mix the schizophrenic "Even Deeper." Built on a pinging sonar sound, a stuttering, drum-and-bass-like beat, sawing violins and the requisite buzzing guitars, "Even Deeper" is a spooky chronicle of self-doubt and self-loathing featuring the stinging lyric, "Sometimes, I have everything/ Yet I wish I felt something."

When he's not beating himself up ("It didn't turn out the way you wanted it, did it?" he sings in "The Wretched"), Reznor takes pot-shots at those who have betrayed him. Two of those musical arrows appear to be thinly veiled slags of former prot�g� Marilyn Manson.

The already-released "Starfuckers, Inc." is joined on The Fragile by the equally biting "No, You Don't," a menacing techno-rock dance song with-blast furnace guitars and sneering vocals. "Baby's got a problem/ Tries so hard to hide/ Got to keep it on the surface/ Because everything else is dead on the other side," he screams, apparently at Manson.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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