The Fragile

By SIMON RODBERG for Student.com on October 1, 1999

A spectre has been haunting pop music: the spectre of Trent Reznor. Beneath the pretty harmonies, the by-rote bravado, even the outre outrage, if you've listened hard since 1994's "The Downward Spiral," you will have heard the muffled anguish. It isn't the pain of betrayed idealism and extroverted suffering that gives Nine Inch Nails its power. No, it's the fear that, no matter how hard they try, nobody else will ever be as brilliant as Trent.

"The Fragile," Nine Inch Nails's five-years-later follow-up, isn't audience-friendly or categorizable enough to win a Grammy. But an honorary degree or two should be in order for its creator, who's layered more sounds than a symphony and created a two-disc masterpiece so complex that, five years from now when NIN releases its next album, nobody will have quite figured it out.

The themes, of course, are the hurt the world does and the strength of will and fury necessary to deal with the hurt. What's different is the way the music works them out: Reznor has taken the melodic funk-metal of his previous work, broken it down into its component noises, and rebuilt a fuzzy wall of sonic energy thick with energy and meaning. It encompasses a falsetto so pure and romantic, the Backstreet Boys could sample it: "There is no place I can go/There is no way I can hide/It feels like it keeps coming from the inside." It encompasses the four-note guitar riff that introduces "Complication," so bursting with machismo that Limp Bizkit should hang their heads in shame. It encompasses the seething metallic screech of "The Wretched" and the amplified stomp of "No, You Don't" alongside the lilting teardrop of "The Day the World Went Away."

In short, "The Fragile" builds itself with the pluralism of the truly genius. It isn't particularly friendly ? I haven't heard so much feedback since the days of grunge ? but it's rewarding in a way that pop music rarely is, in a way that makes every listen a discovery. Even the missteps contain gems, as when the obvious rage of "Starfuckers, Inc." (can you guess how it goes from the title?) gives way to an angst-ridden whisper that only slowly becomes recognizable as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." (Rumor has it that the song refers to Marilyn Manson; I'd rather the two stopped tiffing and worked together again, especially since Manson's "Mechanical Animals" is the only album of the last few years that stands comparison to "The Fragile.")

Reznor creates music that breaks the barriers of rock, with an emphasis on electronics and beats that gives "The Fragile" a weight and interest that rock can rarely carry. Though many melodies stay with me, he doesn't quite display the songwriting skill that made several songs from "The Downward Spiral" and "Pretty Hate Machine" heavily-bleeped radio hits. (Nothing is as danceable as "Closer," either.) Like a post-industrial Pink Floyd, he's too involved in making every song as moody and complex as possible to worry about catchy tunes or ABAB structures.

I wouldn't mind another dance hit, but I can't complain: "The Fragile" is a masterpiece, and more. It'll just take a while to figure out how much more.

Simon Rodberg looks forward to Marilyn Manson's Trent-bashing "answer song," "Reznor Is A Scrub."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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