The Fragile, Nine Inch Nails (Interscope)

By Douglas Wolk for VH1.com on October 1, 1999

Trent Reznor is obviously a perfectionist, as Nine Inch Nails fans who have been waiting for five years since The Downward Spiral will tell you. He is, they will be happy to hear, still a nihilist: he seems to have been spending most of that time coming up with ingenious lines for miserable teen-agers' yearbooks ("For once in my life I feel complete/ And I still want to ruin it"). In fact, he's practically a solipsist. Even though most of the songs on The Fragile have a "you" in them ? "We're In This Together" (RealAudio excerpt) is a lighter-waving love ballad gloriously translated into industrial-rock vernacular ? Reznor claims to be abandoned by everything but the void. More than once, he asks where everybody went; his answer turns out to be "the world is over and I realize it was all in my head" ("Please").

What Reznor is not, and knows he's not, is a melodist. Almost all of his tunes lurk around a few notes the same way, and you can tell exactly when he's going to start screaming. On the other hand, he's rivaled only by Kevin Shields as rock's greatest texturalist, and The Fragile sounds magnificent. In his hands, guitars become a menagerie of unidentifiable beasts, a phalanx of pretty hate machines, wallpaper that comes alive if you get too near it. Almost every track has its own sonic fingerprint: the seasick wobble that bends "The Day The World Went Away" out of shape, the half-time bass boom that submerges "Even Deeper" ([RealAudio excerpt] on which Dr. Dre, of all people, is credited with mixing assistance), the stadium room-tone of the Marilyn Manson kiss-off "Starfuckers Inc." His love for shocks is coming out in arrangements as much as words these days; mechanical rhythms and acoustic instruments dance around each other almost pornographically on the album's opener "Somewhat Damaged" (RealAudio excerpt) and the final riff of "No, You Don't" ends the song by scorching it to the bone. There's never been a Top 40 album that has integrated this much subtle noise and seething atonality.

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. Six of its 23 tracks are instrumentals (although the jackboot nightmare "Pilgrimage" is awfully cool), and far too much of the second disc just recapitulates the ideas of the first one, sledgehammer style. It could have been an explosive, even classic, single album, but that album has been carried away by the torrent from Reznor's burst dam.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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