The Fragile: Eerily Glorious
By Edna Gundersen for USA Today on September 1, 1999
The coats of polish on Nine Inch Nails' art-rock opus can't camouflage Trent Reznor's perverse and subversive paths to musical glory. The Fragile (four stars out of four) is a 23-track marathon of cyberized omni-pop, meticulously honed and twisted to baffle, tantalize, disarm and challenge the listener. Armies of guitars, riptides of bass and swarms of strings are filtered through Reznor's merciless computers and warped imagination, resulting in rich orchestrations poisoned by otherworldly racket and industrial-strength din tethered to sublime pop hooks. These are sounds shaped by an uncompromising auteur confident enough to assemble his visions on a foundation of quicksand. True to its billing, The Fragile is spindly and impulsive. Monster riffs hobble over cliffs into rivers of static. Even the gentlest piano interludes have an eerie menace and instability. The electronic pulse quickens, then turns erratic, as ambient beehives of noise engulf pristine melodies, huge choruses and disfigured violins, cellos and ukuleles. Part of The Fragile's unsettling charm lies in its constant threat of imminent doom, a reminder that Reznor is dancing on a high wire suspended over flames and demons. The misery in Somewhat Damaged and contempt in Starf******, Inc. (presumably a swipe at estranged pal Marilyn Manson) are familiar NIN hues. While there's gloom-a-go-go, Reznor lets hope, albeit fading, seep into his self-lacerating tirades and seems more inclined toward enlightenment than suicide. Despite the music's emotional and structural frailties, The Fragile has the creative sturdiness of a classic.
Transcribed by Keith Duemling