The Fragile: Album of the Year
After five years of writer's block and solitary confinement, Trent
Reznor returned with a
beautifully brutal examination of a depression, disillusionment,
self-acceptance: By Chris Norris
If the recession hits, if the market plummets, if the whole
giddy rush of millennial American
optimism comes to a lurching halt-people, Nine Inch Nails will be
there for you. Here in New
Orleans, his adopted hometown, Trent Reznor is making arrangements.
Onstage in the cavernous
Saenger Performing Arts Center, he is pacing around, peering into the
darkness, gearing up his
five-man pretty hate machine for battle.
The handsome frontline: bassist Danny Lohner, guitarist Robin
Finck, and a short-coiffed
Reznor on guitar, keyboards, and angst. The backfield: Charlie Clouser
on keyboards, Jerome
Dillon on drums. The men-in-black world tour kicks off just a few
weeks after the rehearsal, and
this is the band's first time in a concert hall in four years. And
Reznor, for his part, must follow one
of the most publicized cases of writer's block of the decade (more
than five years sine his
provocative last album, The Downward Spiral) with a quick-change from
studio shut-in to
dramatic focal point. His navy T-shirt says OBJECT.
Holding a flat-black acoustic guitar (Gibson's limited-edition
"Goth" model), the musician steps
to the mic and, looking down at his combat boots, starts playing a
soft, repeating guitar riff. His
insistent plinking kicks off a number titled-with considerable
the first track on Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile.
Triggered by Reznor's edgy pizzicato, the music builds with a
slow, dark intensity quite unlike
the bright bursts of melody and rhythm that define most of today's
computer-assisted rock. The
guitar gets picked up by Finck, the punctuated by the steady, brutal
downbeats from Dillon's snare.
Eerie bits of atmosphere and hiss bleed into the mix. By the time the
chilling, Terminator-style synth
comes machine-gunning out of the speakers, cherubim perched high above
stage are cowering in terror.
Leaning to the mic, Reznor croons, "Lost my faith in everything
/ Taste the wealth of hate in
me…." He gathers steam. "Made the choice to go a-waaaaay / Drink the
fountain of de-caaaaay."
After two minutes of steady crescendo, the song has bloomed into
a gigantic abomination of
digital wrath, the musicians bathed in swamp-gas-green stage light.
Reznor rides it all to a
glottal-shredding climax. "Tear a hole exquisite red! Fuck the rest
and stab it DEAAAD!"
Britney? Trent. Trent? Britney.
Yes, Nine Inch Nails is back, with some of the strangest timing
imaginable: The Fragile is
pretty much the last thing we expected in a year of aerobicized,
singles-driven pop. Brooding,
raging, lovely, and brutal, it's the sort of sprawling. '70s-era
masterwork that engenders moods quite
uncomplimentary to a StairMaster set: two CDs and a 100-plus minutes
drama, despair, and
fevered invention. And, strangely, it gives us hope.
Like a mordant Pet Sounds, The Fragile presents a headily
ambitious rock sound: a mix of
organic lo-fi and synthesizer expressionism, an ancient/futuristic
world of buzzing ukulele strings,
out-of-tune violins, distorted guitar, and digital beats. For
inspirations, Reznor cites such
static-drenched works as Psycho Candy by the Jesus and Mary Chain and
Isn't Anything by My
Bloody Valentine (whose engineer, Alan Moulder, has been Reznor's
sounding board for years).
But the songs, like all Nine Inch Nails songs, are anything but
Rather than the lurid thrills of The Downward Spiral-whose
catchy tunes bout sex and death
fueled many study-hall fantasies-The Fragile chronicles, in slow,
torturous movements, an
unglamorous descent into depression and self-negation. Despite the
teen-friendly aggression and
A-A rhyme schemes, this is largely an "adult" record, and not in a
naughty, parental advisory way. It
deals with aging, numbness, disillusionment, and uneasy
self-acceptance. Not, the 34-year-old
Reznor recognizes the stuff of Global Groove. Reznor's manager, John
Malm, Jr., agrees.
"Honestly, I don't think this fits into the larger rock world, but
Trent's the kind of true artist that
doesn't fit into any pigeonhole."
The Fragile debuted, as expected, at No. 1, enjoying a week up
among Backstreet Boys
before sliding down the charts. Though the album has gone platinum,
the first single, "We're in This
Together" never quite ruled radio or MTV, which used to rotate the
leather-clad provocateur quite
heavily. Now, the onetime national hero of male rage and doomy glamour
is searching for a place
among the bared midriffs and backward baseball caps.
"When I see what's on that afternoon MYV voting thing [Total
Request Live]," he says, "it's
like, 'Who are these people? Who's buying this?' I know someone is,
and I want them to buy my
record, but-good Christ! How did this happen?"
"Music is leaning really hard now," says Lisa Warden, music
director at L.A.'s influential
mod-rock outpost KROQ. "But I love Trent's album, and I think there
are a lot of potential singles
that are going to be huge. He's still relevant to 18-year-olds, still
contemporary." But today's
mainstream is far indeed from the one that embraced the psychosexual
horror show of the
quadruple-platinum The Downward Spiral or NIN's triple platinum 1989
debut, Pretty Hate
Machine. While Reznor made it tech-savvy and cinematic, his brand of
and self-disgust were central to that era's alternative-rock ethos.
Not anymore. While Reznor was
holed up in New Orleans-suffering depression, fighting the entropy of
a thousand rhythm tracks-pop
culture got simple, happy, and young. Which is about as far from
today's Nine Inch Nails as you can
"I wanted this record to sound like it was falling apart,"
Reznor says. "So I really went for
imperfection." That entailed incorporating instruments like cello and
violin-even though he couldn't
really play them. While his flailing efforts may have often sounded,
as he says, "like a sickly,
braces-wearing, red-haired girl trying to do her lesson," once sampled
and modified, they offset the
chilly electronic perfection with a sense of human frailty. This
wasn't simply an aesthetic exercise.
Unlike such tunesmiths as, say, Sting, who can kick back in his
chateau, plunk through some
Bach lute suites, and come up with a catchy chorus, Reznor hasn't
really mastered the craftsmanlike
approach. "I can't just come up with a witty little line or melody,"
he says. "I have to start with a
mood, a sound. And the only way my music has mattered up to this point
is that those moods have
been honest. It's dealing with exactly how I happen to be feeling at
Unsurprisingly, Reznor was feeling bad. "Broken, bruised,
forgotten, sore," goes one lyric.
"Tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away" goes another. A
typical scene on The Fragile
finds our narrator "stuck in this hole with the shit and piss"; the
word "decay" is mentioned in three
separate songs. Nine Inch Nails albums have never been cakewalks, bit
this takes the bummer
concept pretty fast.
"I began this record from a very humbled place. Pretty Hate
Machine seemed like, 'I
remember that guy, but I'm not him anymore.' Now I was someone who
hated that guy-and hated
The building a former funeral home. The inner sanctum has a
haunted-mansion curtains, and some very impressive hardware: a
72-channel mixing board, ten
9-gigabyte hard drives, 25-odd keyboards, and a Kiss mouse pad.
Sitting on a black leather sofa
are well-thumbed copies of the Marquis de Sade's One Hundred Days of
Sodom and Del James'
The Language of Fear. Guess whose house we're in.
The command center of Reznor's Nothing Records isn't all Gothic
ambience and gadgetry. Right
outside its door, there's a cozy kitchen with warm lights, a brewing
coffeemaker, and a refrigerator
gaily adorned with a bumper sticker that reads GENITITURERS SODOMIZED
STUDENT. In the nearby bathroom, male visitors can appraise a framed
lithograph of Pink Floyd's
The Wall while they stand serenading the commode.
Slumped in his studio, Reznor is wearing jeans and a black Fuct
T-shirt, its illustration a Jaws
parody: a huge naked woman swooping up to snag a teeny Great White.
("It's laundry day," he
explains.) He's more relaxed than he was at out first meeting the
previous day in his kitchen, when
he shyly met my glance from the corner of his eye. Occasionally, he
throws his head back and
laughs wickedly at his eyes merry black slits. His voice is deeper
than you might imagine with a slight
rural twang. With his ebony-dyed hair and black boots, he could be
some smart, metal-listening,
comix-reading dude pumping gas on a Pennsylvania Interstate.
Here in his hermit's cell, Reznor is surrounded by ghosts. It
was here that Reznor returned after
the hubbub from the Downward Spiraltour died down. It was here that
Reznor, who had achieved
everything a rural-Pennsylvania-raised Kiss fan could want-a central
role in Woodstock '94, an
obscenity-strewn hit ("Closer") in the Top 10, the wrath of
conservative activist C. DeLores
Tucker-found himself unpsyched to be a rock star.
"It didn't work," Reznor says softly. "I could pretend I fit
into that role onstage every night-the
antics and nonsense. But alone I had kick of a bottoming out. I was
losing friends; I had the woman
who raised me die. Nothing seemed to matter. The last thing I wanted
to do was write an album."
In 1997, when Reznor began The Fragile, he'd lost his
grandmother, a pillar support who'd
raised him since age five. He'd Svengali-ed his close friend Marilyn
Manson onto the pop charts
with Antichrist Superstar, only to get jealously dissed by him soon
after. He was alone, vaguely
ashamed, and, as he quickly discovered, unable to work. "I just didn't
want to sit down with a
notebook and see what was in there," he says. "I didn't want to uncap
the fuckin' cauldron and see
what came out."
While many modern classics concern writer's clock-Sunset
Boulevard, The Shining, Barton
Fink, all of which Reznor has seen-the raven-haired musician seems
more Edgar Allen Poe than
Stephen King. Even now, there's a little Fall of the House of Usher
about him-an obsessive soul
alone in his mansion; he's also driven insane by overacute senses.
"I'm pretty sensitive to smells,"
Reznor says. "I pay attention to sounds all the time." He points at a
bank of computers. "You've got
ten whirring hard drives right there. At one point, I realized I'd
been hearing it for six months. What
has it obscured? What had I missed? As soon as I tuned into it, it
drove me crazy."
Several years ago, Reznor accepted that he was emotionally
compromised. He tried psychiatry
(pity the shrink who landed the Reznor file), but found it
unsuccessful. He flirted with Effexor and
Paxil but discovered, perhaps predictably, that the antidepressants
and Nine Inch Nails don't mix. "I
was in an abnormally positive mood all the time," he says. "Everything
was, like [he affects a mellow
Marin County vibe], 'It's okay. We'll get to that. Whatever.' Part of
what drives my personality got
In late '97, Reznor decided to combat his chemical imbalance by
throwing himself into recording
The Fragile. He took the novelist's traditional approach of moving to
the country and writing,
dammit. He got a cozy little chalet in one of the most gorgeous
setting in North America: California's
Big Sur, with its spectacular cliffs and sweeping views of the
Pacific. One can't imagine a more
placid, inspiring locale to spend some creative time.
"That was terrifying," Reznor says. "I hate thinking about it,
to be honest with you. Everyone
was saying, 'Oh, there's a magical quality there.' Well there was, but
it wasn't the kind of magic I
was looking for. It was an evil, a darkness." It must have been:
Reznor says most of the songs he
wrote there sounded "like something off Billy Joel's The Stranger."
When he returned to New Orleans, Reznor decided to just start
putting some of the "moldy,
decaying" sounds in his head on tape. "It was like an impressionist
thing," Reznor says. "Trying to
paint a picture." But soon he and producer Moulder realized that this
process of sonic
self-portraiture was providing gnarled, fascinating music. "I wanted
to make something that
mattered, that wasn't easily dismissible," Reznor says. "Something
that was accessible and could still
While the classically trained pianist namechecks Debussy as an
influence (the composer'sLa
Mer is also a song title on The Fragile), rock classics like the
"White Album" and David
Bowie'sLow also proved crucial touchstones. "Those records seemed to
shatter this mold of what a
pop song has to do," Reznor says. "Instead of just verse-chorus-verse,
you could use weird
structures. We were like, 'Let's go for it, let's just let it be a
Queen-style, let's make it more
cinematic or theatrical.'"
Reznor and Moulder found themselves-two years and countless
digressions later-with so many songs they needed help whittling them
down. They recruited Bob
Ezrin, a producer of Reznor's all time favorite rock bombast, The
Wall. With Ezrin's help, Reznor
realized that the story of The Fragile was essentially an
autobiographical roman à clef. "Without
having to construct a story in my head, it was all there," he says
excitedly. "I just had to open my
notebook, turn the recorders on, and start." This discovery engendered
apparent in lines like "I won't let you fall apart," "I won't crack,"
and "I will keep on." In fact, one of
the most striking things aboutThe Fragile is that, while they're sung
through gritted teeth, these are
some of the most optimistic lyrics in Reznor's career.
"It was, like, all right, I've got some shit in the arsenal
now," Reznor says, recalling the
momentum that took him through the CD's rocking "right-side." The
arsenal was perhaps best
utilized for the scathing "Star Fuckers, Inc.," which almost
explicitly attacks a certain
ghoul-contact-lens-wearing, cross-dressing Rose McGowan-dating former
friend. While Reznor is
tight-lipped about their falling out, his fun, machine-driven version
of John Lennon's McCartney
kiss-off, "How Can You Sleep," makes it pretty clear how he feels.
"There was an element of thuggery that we wanted to keep in,"
Reznor says of the song. "There
was a sense of humor though the whole tying. We were laughing when we
were doing it, like, this
riff is totally ridiculous. We took the crowd noise from Frampton
Comes Al…." He laughs. "Oh, I
shouldn't say where we got that from."
In some ways, The Fragile is less idiosyncratic that Reznor
might suppose, touching on
mainstream cultural anxieties. Its crisis of emptiness amid success
may come from an unusual
situation-rock-star ennui-but its central themes run throughout the
frozen suburbanites of the film
American Beauty and through the brawling yuppie masochists of Fight
Club, which was directed
by sometime collaborator David Fincher. That film, in fact, was even
based on a book by a Nine
Inch Nails fan.
"I listened to The Downward Spiraland Pretty Hate Machine
constantly while I was writing
Fight Club," says author Chuck Palahnuik. "There were cuts on it that
I would put on repeat to the
point that my housemates were just insane. 'Hurt' was one of the big
ones." The lyric "I hurt myself
today / To see if I still feel" might as well be one of the novel's
"I am still a human being, living in the same world as everybody
else," Reznor says. "I've had
fantastic experiences, I've been in bizarre situations, but I grew up
with the same ideals. I got what I
wanted. It wasn't what I thought it would be. It put more stuff around
me, but it didn't fit what was
inside. I had to find out what might fix that up."
In Reznor's case, it happened to be making a record. Partially
as art, partially as therapy, he
embraced the discipline of pop, which might have proved a nauseatingly
"uplifting" Behind the
Music vignette ofThe Fragile weren't so violent and disquieting.
Despite the crassness of the music
world right now, despite the fact that he could "easily name 20 bands
that [he wants] to fight right
now because they suck so bad," Reznor still finds pop music a mission.
"It's real easy to make noise that's pretentious and baffle
people with obliqueness," he says. "It
would be easy to say: You know, fuck it. I'm making what feels good to
me, and I'll just stream it
over the Internet real-time-find it if you want."
"But it's less challenging then," he continues. "Because it's
really, really hard to make something
accessible that's also intelligent. It's even harder now that it was
five years ago."
He leans forward at the command console, takes a sip of Diet
Coke. "But really, he says
intently, "you should rise to that challenge, you know? Instead of
just sitting back and bitching about
everything. Things havechanged. Attention spans have shortened. The
record business, with
mergers and everything, is a less artistically free place to make
music. But I don't think that an
artist's response should be" Okay, white flag, forget it. I mean,
let's change it back."
Transcribed for The NIN Hotline by Crimsonplague.
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.