Mr. Showbiz Wall of Sound

By Gary Grain for Wall of Sound on September 1, 1999

A couple of multimillion-selling albums, some Grammy awards, near universal critical acclaim, a successful record label ? these abundant achievements do not make Trent Reznor happy. And you tend to believe that nothing will after any amount of time spent listening to the emotional netherworld on The Fragile, Reznor's bleak but richly engaging new Nine Inch Nails project. The Fragile is one of, if not the most, highly anticipated releases of the year, the first new Nine Inch Nails album since 1994's The Downward Spiral, another angst-ridden odyssey that not only gave a mainstream berth to Reznor and his crew but also provided a portal for industrial and techno rock in general. Nobody, however, established as bright a star or as compelling a presence as Reznor, who during the interim further established his auteur's credentials by discovering and nurturing Marilyn Manson and doing soundtrack work for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and David Lynch's The Lost Highway.

On The Fragile, however, Reznor is still spiraling downward ? and perhaps even further than ever. Spread across two CDs and 23 songs (25 on the three-disc vinyl set), it's an epic journey through pain and anger, betrayal and manipulation, recrimination and self-loathing. Glimpses of light are rare ? and in Reznor's case, that amounts to telling a presumed lover that "I can still feel you" after he seemingly does himself in. Place the CD laser at any random point of The Fragile and you won't have to wait too long for blood to be drawn. In the album-opening "Somewhat Damaged," Reznor proclaims that he's "too f--ked up to care anymore," while during "Into the Void" he mourns that he "tried to save myself/ But myself keeps slipping away." "Starf--kers, Inc." takes some pointed shots at Reznor's prodigal son Manson (while also copping a chorus from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"). And even the divine goes against Reznor in "The Wretched": "The clouds will part and the sky cracks open/ And God himself will reach his f--king arm through/ Just to push you down/ Just to hold you down."

Of course, this preponderance of soul-skewering becomes numbing after a point ? especially across the two hours of The Fragile. And Reznor, to his credit, acknowledges his Tortured Artist Syndrome in "The Big Come Down," noting that "There is a game I play/ Try to make myself OK/ Try so hard to make the pieces all fit/ Smash it apart/ Just for the f--k of it." Ultimately, though, Nine Inch Nails' appeal is not the pain itself but how good Reznor and company ? which this time out includes King Crimson's Adrian Belew and David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson ? make it sound. Like its three predecessors, The Fragile captivates us with its sonic alchemy, as Reznor blends his craftsman's sense of song with his avant-gardist's bent to experiment, layer and generally mess things up. He runs the gamut from sweet to abrasive ? usually within the same song ? filling the tunes with disarming tempo and textural changes but never losing their dynamic intensity.

There is a bit of a formula at work, however: the familiar scheme of building spare, stark verses into explosive choruses and noise-drenched bridges. Reznor keeps this fresh with the variety of sounds he employs ? not only from keyboards but also cellos, violins, ukuleles, upright bass, and an endless series of treated guitars. Spectral nah-nah chants flow under the noisy drone of "The Day the World Went Away." A gentle piano marks the solemn opening to "The Wretched." The title track finds Reznor singing over a solitary bass line and rattling percussion effects. "We're in This Together" offers a familiar, industrial soundscape.

Much of the second CD of the set veers from that path as well. "Into the Void" mines a synth-pop groove ? albeit a heavy one. "Starf--kers, Inc." and "The Big Come Down" are propulsive, headbangers specials, while "Underneath It All" has a rolling rhythmic quality and a slight Eastern flavor.

The real revelation on The Fragile may be its instrumentals, well-deployed to provide some welcome relief from the album's grim lyricism. "Pilgrimage" sounds like a mini film score, with its regal trumpets, martial rhythms, and metallic guitar riffs. "Complication" has the dance floor in its sights, while "La Mer" and the album-closing "Ripe (With Decay)" are moodier and more contemplative but as musically skewed as any of the album's other songs.

No Nine Inch Nails album can be termed fun, but The Fragile is no academic exercise, either. It's a visceral, hard-hitting engagement ? an assault, yes, but one that times its punches for maximum impact. It is indeed a long, strange trip, but one that manages to energize more than it drains.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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