The Fragile : Trent Reznor finds soul in prettiest machine yet.

By Michael Tedder for themaneater.com on September 1, 1999

Soul is the most important thing. It's what separates the OK band with that kinda catchy song from the artist.

Believe it or not, nine inch nails frontman Trent Reznor has soul to spare. He tries to convince you otherwise ? the man covers his albums in gigantic guitar and cold, mechanical sounds, and his lyrics celebrate nihilism and despair. Hell, five years ago he insisted he "has no soul to sell" in the hit "Closer" (probably one of the few songs equally likely to be played at a strip club and a mosh pit).

But the soul is still there. It's how his whispers sound like screams. It's how his instrumentals say more than most bands' lyrics do. It's how nine inch nails has the ability to say what its millions of fans can't.

The Fragile, the long-awaited new release by nine inch nails, is the sound of a soul being ripped apart, burned and rediscovered, thrown across two CDs.

While double albums have gotten a bad rep as prog-rock overkill, The Fragile has so many startling musical ideas that two albums are almost not enough to contain it.

The music has an inherent groove to it ? not funk-metal, mind you ? but a grinding, ebbing mobility underneath it, especially on tracks such as "Please" and "The Wretched." It's also littered with bizarre, off-kilter percussion that would make Tom Waits or David Bryne proud ? such as the marimba on "Into The Void" or the jazz-styling of "La Mer."

Oh, yeah, and it's heavy, too. But not in any sort of clich�d, modern-rock radio way. "No, You Don't," "Where Is Everybody," and the first single (the nearly eight-minute-long "We're In This Together"), are both relentlessly ear-bleeding and relentlessly inventive. Tempos bend, muted harmonies rush to the foreground and impossible sounds dance around. Reznor, along with vastly-underrated cohorts Danny Lohmer and Charlie Clouser, uses the studio to redefine what the guitar can do.

The instrumental track "Pilgrimage" has massive down-tuned guitar blasts that Limp Bizkit would kill for. And it's got a marching band. And the sound of studio assistants jumping up and down on cardboard boxes. It's probably pretty obvious by now that The Fragile is something different.

In fact, it's fun to listen to this album at full blast on headphones and play, "What the heck is that?" Found sounds include a Kiss sample, a saw and choirs of backup singers, which float around beneath the crunch. The sounds are so well-manipulated that everything fits into a cohesive flow.

Or one can spend that headphone time absorbing Reznor's gift for melody. Even at it's hardest, The Fragile is endlessly catchy. The Marilyn-Manson-biting "Starfuckers, Inc." (which is a nice reference to Tori Amos' purportedly anti-Courtney Love blast "Professional Widow") makes a catchy refrain out of the title and then out of nowhere steals that classic Carly Simon line: "You're so vain/I bet you think this song is about you/don't you?/don't you?"

The album opener, "Somewhat Damaged," starts out with an acoustic guitar plucking out four notes and ends with the instantly memorable line, "It's funny how/everything you swore would never change/is different now."

Double albums are typically associated with overall concepts. In this case, Reznor injects something new into his tales of despair ? a trace of hope. The Downward Spiral, the band's 1994 concept album about suicide, included the lines, "I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel." On The Fragile, songs such as "We're In This Together" and the title track suggest Reznor has something to live for after all. To call them "love songs" does them no justice, but the lines, "Fragile/she doesn't see her beauty/she tries to get away/sometimes/it's just that nothing seems worth saving/I can't watch her slip away/I won't let you fall apart," express devotion much better than anything R. Kelly will ever do.

In a desolate music industry now dominated by questionably talented one-hit wonder acts, it's nice to see something with soul ? even if it is a little fragile.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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