NIN Make Good On Long-Awaited LP, The Fragile

By Michael Goldberg for Sonicnet on September 1, 1999

Nine Inch Nails' epic work really is the bomb ? but can they overcome the hype?

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of SonicNet Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

A year ago, the cryptic campaign to create a buzz around the Nine Inch Nails album, The Fragile, began with a 30-second commercial on MTV featuring NIN frontman, Trent Reznor, singing a bit of "Into the Void": "Tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away."

The ad, and a subsequent quirky marketing campaign, certainly caught my attention, and over time set us up to expect something even stranger from Reznor than his groundbreaking previous albums, Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and The Downward Spiral (1994).

The Fragile (RealAudio excerpt of title track) was released Tuesday, and this first NIN studio album in five years is an epic work. No surprise. Though I know that Reznor, at least from comments he's made to reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, went through a mild depression during which he doubted his abilities, I and hundreds of thousands of other fans knew that when a new NIN album finally was finished, it would be the bomb.

What is surprising to me is the halfhearted raves the album has been getting from some critics. While Time, of all publications, gives the album its due, the Los Angeles Times gives it 3 1/2 stars. The Fragile "... feels too long," writes critic Robert Hilburn.

Spin's Ann Powers likes it better, but still gives it a nine out of 10, one short of a masterpiece. Entertainment Weekly's Will Hermes says "Right now, hard rock doesn't get any smarter, harder, or more ambitious than this." But that still earns the album merely an A-.

Rolling Stone checks in with four out of five stars. Writes Rob Sheffield: "Now that you mention it, The Fragile does run a little long, doesn't it? But excess is Reznor's chosen shock tactic, and what's especially shocking is how much action he packs into his digital via dolorosa."

Even SonicNet can't just give Reznor his due. Our critic, Douglas Wolk, gave it a 3 1/2 out of five rating, cautioning: "But there's a wearying side to Reznor's rich excesses. The Fragile is clearly meant to be a grand statement on the scale of Pink Floyd's The Wall, whose producer Bob Ezrin is credited with 'final continuity and flow.' What it's got is a serious sprawl problem, with no compelling justification for its expansiveness."

I think the problem is in buying into the hype, then being let down by the real thing.

I mean, imagine you've spent the past five years thinking that The Downward Spiral was really awesome, or reading other critics who said it was really awesome. You see Reznor repeatedly on magazine covers. Then over the past year you began feeding off the hype so that in your mind the upcoming album got built up to where you expected the Red Sea to part and Moses to come on down the mountain toting The Fragile in his outstretched hands.

With that kind of buildup, no matter how good the album is, how can it fail to disappoint?

Well I've been listening to The Fragile all week. I loaded it into my Rio 500 and I've been listening through headphones, in my car, in my office, wherever I go. Let me tell you, it's no letdown. It's all that!

The album is grand, at times horrifying, at times energizing ? ultimately mystifying. It is one of the best two-record sets ever made, deserving to sit on the shelf beside Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti (1975), the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (1972), Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (1966), Bruce Springsteen's The River (1980), the Clash's London Calling (1979) and 1999, (1982) by Prince ? later known as The Artist.

The music alone is worth the ride. Reznor has spoken of watching Taxi Driver and of being inspired by the creepy David Cronenberg film Dead Ringers, and at points The Fragile is just as scary. No, not scary. Rather, certain pieces of music create a feeling of dread, of being overwhelmed. Nothing else makes you feel quite like this.

"Flew too high and burnt the wing/ Lost my faith in everything," sings Reznor in the opening track, "Somewhat Damaged" (RealAudio excerpt).

I don't know about you, and I don't know about the millions of kids who are gonna buy this album over the next year or so, but I can relate to that line. And I could relate to that line back when I was in high school. In those days, my friends and I had Tamalpais High School wired. We put on school rock concerts, we wrote about art and music in the school paper, and we cut classes more often than not to hitchhike up to the record store, where we got our real education. We thought we had the world in the palm of our hand, but we found out the hard way that we didn't.

Out of high school and on to college and we were at square one, having to prove ourselves all over again. Girlfriends dumped us. We found ourselves working at fast-food joints. In a way, we went from being stars to being in the gutter.

The success Reznor experienced in the wake of Pretty Hate Machine and then The Downward Spiral hit him hard. You hear it so often it's a clich�, that sudden wealth and fame are not easy to handle.

I don't know what it feels like to be Trent Reznor, or to have gone through what he has. I do know that my own journey, first breaking into Rolling Stone in the mid-'80s, then founding Addicted To Noise in a room of my house and taking it through mergers and acquisitions, finding myself running the most influential daily music news service in the world, and being a player at the biggest online music network, has been an interesting one. At times an unsettling one.

"The clouds will part and the sky cracks open/ And God himself will reach his fucking arm through/ JUST TO PUSH YOU DOWN/ JUST TO HOLD YOU DOWN," Reznor sings on "The Wretched."

Oh fuck it, just go get a copy of The Fragile. Like it or hate it, it's gonna change you if you dig into it, if you let it sink in.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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