The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope)

By Jason Ferguson for MTV on September 1, 1999

Say what you will about Trent Reznor, there is one simple fact that is undeniable: when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, he is absolutely uncompromising. And the much-awaited follow-up to The Downward Spiral certainly elucidates this fact. The double-disc set ? all 23 tracks of it ? is so inherently defined by Reznor's unshakably cheerless worldview that you realize that not only would it be impossible for anyone else to make a record that sounded like this, but that it would be equally impossible for Reznor to make an album that didn't sound like this.

Much in the same way that Prince creates music that is at once accessible and definable, yet only accessible and definable as "Prince music," Reznor has, with Nine Inch Nails, created an entity that is completely independent of anything else on the planet. There are very few artists who have managed to do that: Metallica, Sonic Youth, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd... they all took bits and pieces from various influences, mixed 'em up with their own cockeyed point of view, and wound up with something that dozens of other artists would imitate but never duplicate ? in effect, creating their own genre. Reznor has done that as well. And, much in the same way that those artists would continually expand the envelope of their own genre, Reznor has, with The Fragile, exploded the definition of what Nine Inch Nails means.

But, just like the music of those other artists, if you didn't like it before, you probably won't like it now, because, in essence, this is Nine Inch Nails' defining moment. Like Sign O The Times, Daydream Nation or Songs in the Key of Life, that defining moment comes in a genre-busting, mind-blowing, double-album package. Like those albums, The Fragile is a densely woven, thematically intense, and blithely conceived "here it is" statement that combines Reznor's morbid compositional abilities with his unequivocal mastery of studio techniques to create a true piece of art.

Whether it's the dense, thudding drama of the title track, the Indonesian-tinged funk of "Into the Void," or the blistering, redline rage of "Starf**kers, Inc.", The Fragile unfolds itself into multiple explications on the crushing drama of life and the scars that result. However, far from being a monochromatic study of "life sucks and I hate the world," Reznor explores beauty and vulgarity, anger and introspection, love and hate with the same finely-honed sense of overboard drama. And, yes, it sometimes is quite overboard: "Pilgrimage" is sort of a fascist's "Bohemian Rhapsody," all bombast and horror, while "Underneath It All" pushes the envelope of cyberterror just about two steps too far.

But unlike his multitude of imitators, Reznor never shocks simply for the sake of the shock. Given the length of the album, he is fully enabled to explore a variety of moods and various aspects of those moods. So, while a track like "Starf**kers" on its own may seem a little bit, well, obnoxious, sandwiched as it is between the simplistic grind of "Please" and the futurefunk of "Complication," its intensity makes perfect sense. Not that The Fragile is some high-toned "concept album." Rather, it's a consistent and fluid album; one that must be listened to from beginning to end... all two hours of it.

Personally, this writer has no affinity for NIN's synthetic antagonism, and, to be sure, many folks may stumble blindly through this record trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. But personal preference certainly doesn't define a great record. A unique and consistent vision ? and an unerring commitment to manifest that vision to its logical conclusion ? is what defines a great album. And, by that standard, The Fragile doubtlessly succeeds. And, just like those great albums mentioned earlier, will certainly define this artist's place in time.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

View the NIN Hotline article index