New York Times Review The Fragile

Originally published in The New York Times on September 1, 1999

In the novel "Great Jones Street," Don Delillo defined a rock star as ?one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the public?. The only 1990 rocker to live up to that billing has been Trent Reznor, who records as Nine Inch Nails.

On the albums "Pretty Hate Machine", "Broken" and "The Downward Spiral", Mr. Reznor crawled inside the mindset of a psychotic loner who could calmly intone: "Nothing can stop me now, Cause I don?t care anymore". In "Head like a Hole", he vowed "I'd rather die than give you control"; he probed the sacred and profane sexual impulses in ?Closer". Blurting out alienation and thwarted rage, Nine Inch Nails songs provided defiant sing-alongs for fans and obvious targets for the censorious.

With Mr. Reznor playing nearly every instrument, the music throbbed and blared and insinuated. It merged the pitiless beat of industrial rock with the guitar attack of heavy metal, sometimes dropping to a dire murmur, often adding enough melody to make the songs reach beyond the rock audiences? head banging fringe. He didn?t rule anything out: Beatles harmonies, a disco beat, punk-rock tremolos, a primal howl. With the psychological expertise of a horror-film soundtrack and a willingness to wield ugly sounds in precise doses, Mr. Reznor became the auteur of the foreboding and grotesque.

The ominous tone still dominates "The Fragile" But on the new album, its bye-bye, blasphemy, and so long to sex drugs and S&M. Mr. Reznors adolescent concerns, the ones that put black NIN stickers on the lockers of high school students both sensitive and belligerent, are receding. Maybe he has bequeathed them to his one time (and now estranged) prot�g� Marilyn Manson, who?s still eager to court notoriety. Mr. Reznor has lost interest in easy sensationalism and standard taboos, and he?s no longer fighting psychological battles with authority figures. Instead, he has decided to stare down his most relentless tormentor: himself.

"The Fragile", the first Nine Inch Nails album in five years, is a desperate identity crisis rendered in symphonic scale: two CDs lasting 104 minutes, with 17 songs and 6 instrumentals. It?s an immersion in negative expectations, a passage toward an ever more encompassing solitude. Over the length of the album, every possible support, - friends, faith, love, his own stubborn persistence- shatters when the singer needs it most. "Thought he lost everything/ Then he lost a whole lot more," Mr. Reznor whispers over clatters and thumps in a subdued bass undertow in "I?m Looking Forward to Joining You Finally".

Although the lyrics never offer specifics, "The Fragile" could be decoded as an album about the struggle to make the album itself. It can also, however, stand as a cycle of songs about one man?s reaction to betrayal, loneliness and insurmountable depression. Still, in its music, the albums sense of isolation mirrors the situation of a one-man band, like Mr. Reznor, trying to stave off his self doubt.

"The Fragile" is clearly an artifact of obsessive studio toil and long hard hours. Every nanosecond of sound has been painstakingly sharpened and barbed. Nine Inch Nails has always used jolting dynamics, corrosive vocals, and serrated timbres. But on "the Fragile" Mr. Reznor and his co-producer Alan Moulder don?t simply bludgeon the songs. They open up the music the way Damien Hirst?s sculptures - like full-size slices of cows in transparent cases - open up anatomy. Mr. Reznor is less and less inclined to imitate the sound of a live band with guitars, keyboard, drum and bass playing their usual roles. The arrangements on "The Fragile" are more erratic; they slip rhythmic gears, they wrangle from within, they suddenly shift volume and perspective.

The First song on the album "Somewhat Damaged" is a typically unstable contraption. It starts with a repeating four note line acoustic guitar, answered by an insistently dissonant note from the other speaker; stop-start drums turn the beat around a fast electronic pulse chatters the midrange; a simple vocal sits across the four line guitar, which moves to nastier electronic guitar. There are volleys of staggered percussion sounds; the pulse leaps from instrument to instrument; Mr. Reznors voice grows frazzled and furious as he pronounces himself "poison to the rotten core."

That kind of pointillism is only one of Nine Inch Nails strategies on "The Fragile." There are straightforward hard-rock thrashers and sustained processionals, beats like slow hip-hop and zinging techno riffs. Mr. Reznor chants simple, repeating lines while the music ricochets all around him, or he gathers voices and instruments for a big, old fashioned rock choruses, then goes on to vandalize them.

All over the album, acoustic and electronic sounds are processed beyond recognition. Instruments writhe in and out of tune; static and distortion are calibrated and layered until they become rhythm as well as noise. The arrangements change restlessly through every song, rising and collapsing, taking on heft and then fracturing themselves. Riffs slip quietly into the mix, then detonate and power chords slam into the foreground, then drop away like trap-doors. The music never finds secure ground. But it rarely stumbles, either Mr. Reznors worst misstep is to let pianist Mike Garson fling too many of the clusters that he has been adding to the rock records since he appeared on David Bowies 1973 "Aladdin Sane".

At times, "The Fragile" finds a glimmer of human connection. Early on the first disk, "We?re In This Together" gives the singer an inseparable lover as he insists "We will make it through somehow". Although frenzied, distortion laced guitars snarl of impending disaster. In "Please" he begs "Will you please complete me?" only to realize his partner will never be enough. The albums title song, a stately, slow-building ballad, praises a fragile woman who "shines in a world of ugliness," and the singer promises "I wont let you fall apart". But as they seek the perfect place, over burbling "Strawberry fields" keyboards, the accompaniment turns sour, dissonant, and paranoid. The idyll can?t last.

More, conventionally, a few songs lash out at show business bloodsuckers and sycophants, including one that?s obviously a parting shot at Marilyn Manson. But the old Nine Inch Nails spite and irritability no longer ring as true on the songs that own up to fragility, self-loathing and perseverance despite it all. "There is a place I can hide/ It feel like it keeps coming from inside," Mr. Reznor gasps has hes buffeted by discordant bass double-stomps and synthetic buzzes and zaps in "The Big Come Down".

On "The Fragile", the singer never finds a way out of his misery. Then again, he doesn?t approach suicide as he did on "The Downward Spiral". All he can do is endure and observe, fighting his own fears to a stalemate. While he does that, luckily, Mr. Reznor can hide in the studio and piece together music that?s as cunning and disquieting as his raw anger used to be.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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