Nine Inch Noir

By David Menconi for Railegh Paper, News & Observer on October 1, 1999

There is a heart of darkness to pop music, one that few artists get anywhere near. Most seem content to circle around it in orbits of varying degrees. Even if you like 'N Sync or Britney Spears, for example, you'd have a hard time passing off what they do as soul-baring. Occasionally, somebody makes it all the way down to this deep, dark place, and he's almost never the same afterward (see: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who killed himself six months after the release of 1993's scathing "In Utero").

Nine Inch Nails' ambitious new album, "The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope Records), comes closer to this pit of despair then anything else you'll hear this year. But it could turn out to be a therapeutic exercise for Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor -- who, given the depression quotient of most of his work, spends most of his time on the dark side to begin with.

If nothing else, "The Fragile" definitely gets under the skin. Initially, the album sounds dull, repetitive and much too long -- 104 minutes over two discs, with more than a quarter of its 23 tracks instrumentals. But give the album time (and accept that Reznor's pain is as fascinating as he himself believes), and "The Fragile" will get to you.

Mesmerizing and difficult, the music starts and stops in fits and spurts, with individual instruments, riffs and sounds suddenly rising before falling away. Tracks flow into each other as extended minisuites, with leisurely pauses in unexpected places.

Even the sound levels are all over the place, forcing constant volume adjustments. One moment it's so quiet you have to turn it up to hear what's going on; the next it's so loud you have to turn the volume right back down to endure it. "The Fragile" is an old-fashioned headphones record, a homage to such sprawling listening experiences as Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (who's producer, Bob Ezrin, was brought in to sequence the NIN tracks after Reznor recorded them).

This sprawl applies to musical styles as well as time and space. Making nods to electronica, heavy metal, chamber pop and even new age, "The Fragile" pinballs around like a series of adolescent mood swings. It's never any one thing for very long, keeping you off balance between harshly dissonant and soothing tranquil. The instrumental "La Mer" for example, begins with a repetitive piano figure (think Philip Glass) that devolves into weird plinking noises, then mutates into strange new-age trip-hop with the unexpected addition of clattery drum and bass. The entire album is a virtuoso exercise in mood manipulation.

Lyrically, "The Fragile" is nonspecific enough to apply to most any situation, from the difficulty of following up a multiplatinum blockbuster to the humiliating trauma of high school. Brooding and fatalistic when he isn't raging and angry, Reznor works some of the same territory of resigned depression that Bob Dylan covered with 1997's "Time Out of Mind." Reznor's "Thought he lost everything, then he lost a whole lot more" (from "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally") isn't far removed from Dylan's "When you think you've lost everything, you find out you can always loose a little more."

While his imagery is less overtly violent this time around, Reznor will never be mistaken for a shiny, happy person. Honestly his alienated lyrics are the weakest part of this record, the stuff of sophomoric diary entries ("Just how damaged have I become? When I think I can overcome, it runs even deeper"). But Reznor's genius lies in getting his point across musically and emotionally, an achievement that transcends more verbiage.

It's an achievement that also laps the competition. Unlike Korn or Limp Bizkit, "The Fragile" is nasty, negative music you can listen to without hating yourself afterward -- and Reznor himself is more than willing to take care of the self-loathing for you.

Nine Inch Nails, "The Fragile" ****

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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