Nine Inch Nothing?

By Jonas Blank for The Chronicle on October 1, 1999

Trent Reznor spent five years making The Fragile.

The Fragile is a two-CD set. It has 23 songs.

Five years ago, Trent Reznor made a very popular album called The Downward Spiral. It had 14 songs. These songs offended several conservative pundits. The album sold a lot of copies, and it got Trent voted "Artist of the Year" in Spin magazine.

After The Downward Spiral's big success, nobody heard much from Trent. He produced some soundtracks that had a song or two of his on them, and he produced Marilyn Manson's very popular and controversial second album Antichrist Superstar. While Manson's popularity swelled him to icon status, Reznor's camp stayed quiet. Supposedly, he was holed up at Nothing Studios, a converted funeral home in New Orleans. He was doing something big. He was waiting for Inspiration.

The Inspiration wasn't worth the wait.

The Fragile has some superb studio flourishes. It has insect sounds. It has punchy, resonant bass and crisp highs. It has harrowing bits of piano. It has pieces of, reportedly, more than 4000 hours of material recorded over the last five years. Somewhere, according to Reznor, it even uses a sound made by shaking a box of junk in front of a microphone. It flows from song to song with almost cinematic ease; it feels linear and precise. It feels like Trent Reznor spent his 4,000 hours in the studio reading a book called How To Make the Perfect-Sounding Album, and it sounds like he followed instructions.

The music is another story.

No mountain of studio wizardry could rescue The Fragile from being what it is-a bloated wank session with no impact, no soul and no relevance. Bands that wait five years to make albums need to make timeless music that bridges the gaps; The Fragile proves more than anything that Reznor's flaccid industrial-lite is of an age that's past. Trent keeps begging us to feel his pain, but he's no longer shocking or even convincing-his pain-schtick is so tired it's almost funny.

Good art thrives on catharsis, but turning pain into art takes an artist. The Fragile argues convincingly that Trent Reznor is not one. Lyrically, he's a pithy high-school hack whose snarly miasma couldn't hold up in a fourth-rate lit mag. Reznor's lyrics are stultifyingly shallow. Apparently, somebody told Trent that rhyming the words at the end of every line qualifies something as poetry. The Fragile is neck-deep in this sophomoric tripe, with couplets like, "talking to myself all the way to the station / pictures in my head of the final destination" or "you can keep on sucking until the blood won't flow / when it starts to hurt it only helps it grow." Rather than illuminate its supposedly damaged, disaffected narrator, The Fragile yelps like a dumb kid who can't buy a BB gun at Wal-Mart. Every good musical idea on the record (save the couple of instrumentals) gets suffocated by the painful lyrical drivel. "Starfuckers, Inc.," Trent's rumination on his creative split with Marilyn Manson, is a perfect example. The song's groovy, junglesque lead is masterful and fresh, but by the end of the first minute, it's buried in a wash of guitar screech and screaming that makes Manson's work sound innovative. Reznor cannot hope to secure legendary status by rehashing his own production techniques three years late.

The Fragile's greatest failing is simply that it arrived in 1999. The moment of tech-industrial-pop music is past; Marilyn Manson has gone glam, and even perennial bottom-feeders Filter are trying to "rock" and "emote" more while the Bizkits of the world whoop it up with the kids. The Fragile is too much of too little, too late. The Reznor sound has been mined pretty liberally. The Fragile proves more than ever that the techniques that made The Downward Spiral so exciting were only exciting once, and in limited doses. The two-CD format compounds listener ennui; it turns what could have been a 50-minute album with five good songs into two hours worth of filler-filled tedium.

As the '90s roar out, people don't tolerate unhappiness the way they used to. Awash in today's money and optimism, or left behind in despair, people over the age of 14 will have a hard time empathizing with a whining, poetically incompetent multimillionaire. The Fragile is a windbag of an album, an ambitious failure. It fails as pop and art; it has nothing brave enough to challenge listeners, and nothing catchy to keep them coming back. Trent Reznor's most notable cultural achievement already happened: he made Marilyn Manson a household name, and watched Manson steal his fire and mollify the impact of his sound. This noise has lost its menace, and like all impotent fads, deserves to fade away.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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