Reznor plays on 'Fragile' strength

By Edna Gundersen for USA Today on February 1, 1999

As Trent Reznor, the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails, obsessively tinkers in his New Orleans studio, he's beginning to lose perspective.

"I'm in the home stretch and there's this question nagging me: Is this fantastic or so self-absorbed that I missed the mark?" Reznor says of his upcoming album, The Fragile.

Rock's electronic Frankenstein had the same doubts about his last studio release, 1994's The Downward Spiral, a critical and commercial triumph that cemented his reputation as one of rock's few remaining daredevils.

Before its release, Reznor was certain "it was the end of my career," he says. "I thought nobody's going to buy this."

A remix album followed, along with tracks on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (produced by Reznor) and The Perfect Drug single.

Reznor also put energy into building his Nothing label and tech-saturated studio, further delaying NIN's album, to the dismay of fans and retailers hoping for a fresh rock catalyst. In 1997, Alternative Press declared it one of 1998's most anticipated releases. It never surfaced, so the magazine recast it as one of 1999's hottest prospects. It's expected by June.

"For the past two years, I've been trying to reinvent myself. I didn't have a plan, unlike the rigid set of rules I followed in The Downward Spiral. I let my subconscious go in an unpredictable direction. It's been a good learning experience."

And a lengthy one. He's finished 20 tracks and has another 25 demos on the assembly line. He's contemplating a double album: one instrumental disc and one with vocals.

"By the time it's sorted out, I hope it makes a pretty monumental statement in terms of where I'm at."

It seems the pop auteur has vacated the scorched earth of despair, guilt and rage. He's curtailing self-destructive tendencies and favoring observation over painful introspection.

"It's not as knee-jerk muscle-flexingly angry," he says. "It's got a newfound maturity. In hindsight, some of my music seems a bit juvenile. But if you look back and say, 'I couldn't beat that,' there's no point doing another record."

While he remains perversely experimental, abandoning song structure and cyber-shredding conventional instruments into unrecognizable sounds, Reznor claims The Fragile may be his most ear-friendly record yet.

"I'm less concerned with going out of my way to make it unlistenable," he says. " I'm approaching music as art, but part of my head is tuned into the hooks of AM radio."

Still, Reznor's capsule review is hardly conventional: "Imagine Tom Waits on a bayou filtered through a funk blender and slowed down."

Corrupted by technology, organic sounds are rendered alien. Distorted ukuleles and detuned cellos enhance a feeling of decay that permeates every track. Bandmates and guests add riffs they'll be hard-pressed to locate in the dense, manipulated soundscape.

"I play guitar on almost every track, and there are live drums," he says. "But never fear it doesn't sound like a band playing. It's very bent and at times claustrophobic. We went to incredible lengths pushing technology to do things it shouldn't do."

Prone to depression, Reznor felt revivified by the therapeutic process of creating music, especially after suffering a celebrity hangover.

"I got sick of the press wars, the backstabbing, the chart positions, the ugly side you never thought about when you started practicing guitar. I forgot the feeling ofbeauty I can achieve by writing. You lose that in the nonsense of being a rock star."

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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