Nine Inch Nails' 'Fragile' Recovery
What kind of mood is Trent Reznor in on "The Fragile," Nine Inch Nails'
much-anticipated, long-awaited follow-up to 1994's "The Downward
Foul but hopeful.
Perhaps that's what you'd expect from a man who has spent the past five
years battling depression--mild, he insists--and a suffocating writer's block
built on the great expectations of both critics and fans.
That explains why it's taken Reznor so long to finish "The Fragile." He was
busy, if not finishing himself, at least improving himself, slowly lifting himself
out of the self-loathing, despair and anger that have fueled his writing since
NIN's 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine," and culminated in the psychic
and sonic brutality of "The Downward Spiral."
"The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope) is a double CD, clocking in at more
than 100 minutes. Reznor, who is NIN, clearly sounds as if he's trying to
move out of the dark shadows of his own soul. The new album has plenty
of industrial rock bombast, but overall there's more subtlety than assault,
more guitars and odd strings (cello, ukulele processed on computers) than
And though Reznor's home address is still Bleak House, you will hear
something new--post-therapy hope and optimism--on tracks like "The
Way Out Is Through" ("All I've undergone/ I will keep on"), "We're in This
Together" and the title track, in which hard-won self-love must be
defended again and again against those pesky and persistent demons.
Reznor declaims, "We'll find the perfect place to go where we can run and
hide/ I'll build a wall and we can keep them on the other side . . . but they
keep waiting . . . and picking. . . ." In the end, he promises himself that "I
won't let you fall apart."
But "The Fragile" also acknowledges the continuing power that
self-destructive, suicidal impulses have over Reznor. In "The Wretched,"
the singer suggests he's found temporary release, except that eventually
"the clouds will part and the sky cracks open/ And God will reach his
[expletive] arm through just to push you down/ Just to hold you down."
Then he's "back at the beginning, sinking, spinning. . . . You can try to stop
it but it keeps on coming," Reznor grumbles.
In the druggy and dreamy "Even Deeper," he complains, "Sometimes, I
have everything/ Yet I wish I felt something." Here and elsewhere, there
always seems to be a dangerous undertow. "Just how damaged have I
become?/ When I think I can overcome/ It runs even deeper," Reznor
admits, before pleading, "All the hands of hope have withdrawn/ Could
you try to help me hang on?" It goes on and on, still a downward spiral:
"Into the Void" ("tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away");
"The Big Come Down" ("There is no place I can go, there is no way I can
hide/ It feels like it keeps coming from the inside").
Clearly, Reznor is in no danger of transforming himself into one of those
shiny happy people any time soon.
The opening track, "Somewhat Damaged," kicks off with an acoustic guitar
vamp, but Reznor and his studio mates--notably co-producer/mixer Alan
Moulder and programmers Charlie Clouser and Keith Hillebrandt--pile on
layers of sonic texture and pounding, pulsating rhythms until the music
matches the frustration of the lyrics, which offer an explanation for his long
absence. "Flew too high and burnt the wing/ Lost my faith in everything,"
spews Reznor. "Taste the wealth of hate in me."
But the song also suggests a deep-seated dissatisfaction with such negative
attitudes. The rest of the album sways between progress and regression,
optimism and pessimism, empowerment and surrender.
Several tracks underscore Reznor's facility with pop hooks, something that
always sets his work apart from the punk-metal cacophony of industrial
rock. They include the post-glam buzz of "The Day the World Went
Away" and the punk funk of "We're in This Together," which, with lines
like "The deeper the wound I'm inside you," sounds like either a testament
to a new romantic inspiration or surrender to lingering depression.
Better yet is "Star[expletive] Inc.," a caustic put-down of faux rock stars
(former Reznor protege Marilyn Manson and perennial pest Courtney
Love come to mind) that slaps together elements of Carly Simon's "You're
So Vain" and Kiss's "Shout It Out Loud." It has one of those great hooks
and choruses that will make it a concert favorite, but the title and refrain
will keep this one off the radio.
Experimental textures inform the album's half-dozen instrumental tracks,
which have a mesmerizing, cinemascopic feel. Several, like "La Mer" and
"Pilgrimage," underscore the sense of a journey that courses through "The
Fragile." At the end, you'll think the journey's far from over.
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