THIS SIDE UP : NINE INCH NAILS' 'THE FRAGILE' EXHIBITS A REFINED FORMULA
It's been five years since Nine Inch Nails' ``The Downward
Spiral'' established its mastermind,
Trent Reznor, as the poster boy for malicious electronic rock.
That album's death-disco hit, ``Closer,'' with its unprintable
catch phrase and creepy video, was
a remarkably dark point in the already gloomy grunge scene, and it
made a star out of its creator.
Reznor finally has re-emerged with his third album, ``The
Fragile,'' a double disc released this
month that explores many of the same emotional depths as its
predecessors, but with a more refined
sense of modulation and restraint. It's a quixotic, challenging work
that cements Reznor's reputation
for sound and fury, yet also gives voice to a softer, more nuanced
side of NIN.
``The Downward Spiral'' was about a life falling apart, and the
new album can be viewed as its
aftermath. The protagonist of ``The Fragile'' has formed a bulletproof
shell of bitterness over past
betrayals, yet he is now, believe it or not, clearly in love.
It would be difficult to imagine the Reznor of old uttering
lyrics such as ``We will make it
through somehow'' or ``She shines/In a world full of ugliness,'' but
NIN has turned a corner.
Although the majority of the new songs concern the familiar territory
of suffering and emotional
decay, there is an underlying longing and even hope to ``The Fragile''
that saves it from monotony.
Musically the album owes debts to many styles in the rock
lexicon. While there is plenty of
harrowing heavy metal thunder, Reznor and co-producer Alan Moulder
have explored subtlety and
texture much more thoroughly than in the previous two NIN albums.
Cellos, marimbas, even
ukuleles and a marching band weave in and out of the angry
guitar/synth/drum arrangements, but
Reznor and Moulder successfully keep the instrumentation from the
extravagance of the silliest acts
of the '70s (think ELO or Giorgio Moroder).
However, that decade's influence does indeed loom large over
``The Fragile,'' from its Led
Zeppelin guitar licks to the thick buzz of the instrumental track
``Just Like You Imagined,'' which
would sound perfectly at home on a vintage Yes or King Crimson LP.
Reznor even includes a
recognizable Kiss sample in his palette of sonic colors.
The NIN sound is based heavily in synthesizers and samplers, but
``The Fragile'' shares few
common traits with the bleepy electronica of clubland. Instead Reznor
and Moulder tend toward
oddly deconstructed samples of low-tech instruments playing
machinelike riffs, like the repeating
acoustic guitar on the opening track, ``Somewhat Damaged.'' Their
approach to the synthesizer is
surprisingly traditional and melodic, with its roots firmly planted in
the beefy Moog synthesizer lines
of progressive rock and early-1980s funk.
Styles reminiscent of other artists are scattered throughout the
album, but Reznor always filters
them through the unique prism of NIN. The song ``We're in This
Together'' employs a distinctively
Kornlike riff. ``Into the Void'' and ``Where Is Everybody'' are
slow-burn grooves worthy of
old-school Prince or mid-period Gary Numan. The mood and sound of
Depeche Mode inform
almost every track in some fashion.
``The Fragile'' is a Nine Inch Nails record in every way, novel
yet instantly familiar. It is an
album that will bear repeated listenings, offering up new insights and
relationships for some time to
come. If the lyrics are somewhat redundant and rhymes are occasionally
forced (``Watching fate as
it flows/Down the path we have chose''), the album's forte remains its
dynamic ebb and flow.
Reznor's grimy marriage of rock, pop, funk and electronics is
more than mere pastiche; it is a
personal aesthetic that he has realized more fully with every album.
``The Fragile'' is a vital and
cohesive statement, and it was worth the five-year wait.
By DEREK DONOVAN
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.