Nine Inch Nails' 'Fragile' Recovery

Originally published in Washington Post on September 1, 1999

What kind of mood is Trent Reznor in on "The Fragile," Nine Inch Nails' much-anticipated, long-awaited follow-up to 1994's "The Downward Spiral"?

Foul but hopeful.

Perhaps that's what you'd expect from a man who has spent the past five years battling depression--mild, he insists--and a suffocating writer's block built on the great expectations of both critics and fans. That explains why it's taken Reznor so long to finish "The Fragile." He was busy, if not finishing himself, at least improving himself, slowly lifting himself out of the self-loathing, despair and anger that have fueled his writing since NIN's 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine," and culminated in the psychic and sonic brutality of "The Downward Spiral."

"The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope) is a double CD, clocking in at more than 100 minutes. Reznor, who is NIN, clearly sounds as if he's trying to move out of the dark shadows of his own soul. The new album has plenty of industrial rock bombast, but overall there's more subtlety than assault, more guitars and odd strings (cello, ukulele processed on computers) than synthesizers.

And though Reznor's home address is still Bleak House, you will hear something new--post-therapy hope and optimism--on tracks like "The Way Out Is Through" ("All I've undergone/ I will keep on"), "We're in This Together" and the title track, in which hard-won self-love must be defended again and again against those pesky and persistent demons. Reznor declaims, "We'll find the perfect place to go where we can run and hide/ I'll build a wall and we can keep them on the other side . . . but they keep waiting . . . and picking. . . ." In the end, he promises himself that "I won't let you fall apart."

But "The Fragile" also acknowledges the continuing power that self-destructive, suicidal impulses have over Reznor. In "The Wretched," the singer suggests he's found temporary release, except that eventually "the clouds will part and the sky cracks open/ And God will reach his [expletive] arm through just to push you down/ Just to hold you down." Then he's "back at the beginning, sinking, spinning. . . . You can try to stop it but it keeps on coming," Reznor grumbles.

In the druggy and dreamy "Even Deeper," he complains, "Sometimes, I have everything/ Yet I wish I felt something." Here and elsewhere, there always seems to be a dangerous undertow. "Just how damaged have I become?/ When I think I can overcome/ It runs even deeper," Reznor admits, before pleading, "All the hands of hope have withdrawn/ Could you try to help me hang on?" It goes on and on, still a downward spiral: "Into the Void" ("tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away"); "The Big Come Down" ("There is no place I can go, there is no way I can hide/ It feels like it keeps coming from the inside").

Clearly, Reznor is in no danger of transforming himself into one of those shiny happy people any time soon.

The opening track, "Somewhat Damaged," kicks off with an acoustic guitar vamp, but Reznor and his studio mates--notably co-producer/mixer Alan Moulder and programmers Charlie Clouser and Keith Hillebrandt--pile on layers of sonic texture and pounding, pulsating rhythms until the music matches the frustration of the lyrics, which offer an explanation for his long absence. "Flew too high and burnt the wing/ Lost my faith in everything," spews Reznor. "Taste the wealth of hate in me."

But the song also suggests a deep-seated dissatisfaction with such negative attitudes. The rest of the album sways between progress and regression, optimism and pessimism, empowerment and surrender.

Several tracks underscore Reznor's facility with pop hooks, something that always sets his work apart from the punk-metal cacophony of industrial rock. They include the post-glam buzz of "The Day the World Went Away" and the punk funk of "We're in This Together," which, with lines like "The deeper the wound I'm inside you," sounds like either a testament to a new romantic inspiration or surrender to lingering depression.

Better yet is "Star[expletive] Inc.," a caustic put-down of faux rock stars (former Reznor protege Marilyn Manson and perennial pest Courtney Love come to mind) that slaps together elements of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" and Kiss's "Shout It Out Loud." It has one of those great hooks and choruses that will make it a concert favorite, but the title and refrain will keep this one off the radio.

Experimental textures inform the album's half-dozen instrumental tracks, which have a mesmerizing, cinemascopic feel. Several, like "La Mer" and "Pilgrimage," underscore the sense of a journey that courses through "The Fragile." At the end, you'll think the journey's far from over.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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