November 1999

The Fragile

Two Rock Critics are having a conversation. One says to the other, "Have you heard the new Nine Inch Nails album yet?" And the other says "No, I hated it."

Hahaha. I love that joke. If it offends you, stop reading now and click over to the effusive, Trent-Reznor-as-the-Second-Coming-of-Christ colon- nuzzling session provided by Reef Valmont in his review of The Fragile. You don't want to read what I have to say about this record and Trentís possible fatal case of Head-Up-Ass disease.

It wasnít always this way. Not so long ago, I was the biggest, most fanatical, single-minded, Trent-obsessed Nine Inch Nails fan on the planet. In fact, the story behind how I met fellow Pandemonium columnist, Reef "Kill the Lights" Valmont involves our participation, along with a third partner, in the publication of a now-defunct Nine Inch Nails fanzine called SIN. So don't even try to tell me I wasn't all the way down the spiral with Trent and company.

The problem is, I'm not the most patient person in the world. It's a character flaw I'm working hard to overcome, but the simple truth remains that I really hate to be kept waiting. When necessity dictates that the making of a record takes longer than expected or desired -- even to the point where it exceeds the limits of reason -- (and I understand that this does happen) the pay-off had better deliver satisfaction guaranteed, or you're going to have to steer clear of the dropping blade and watch the rolling heads. When I've been waiting for something, and promised the moon and stars, not for days or weeks or even months, but years, I really don't like to be disappointed.

Waiting five long years for a new Nine Inch Nails CD, only to be delivered the non-stop "I'm-such-a-big-loser" bitchathon that is The Fragile, is like being teased into a state of rapturous sexual frenzy, only to discover that, when it's time to get down to business, your lover is impotent. The Fragile isn't the worst record released in 1999, but I liked it a lot better in 1994, when it was half as long, and called The Downward Spiral. I feel like the South Park kids did when the Carnival Barker forced them to pay $5,000 for defective Terence and Phillip dolls. And I must call Shenanigans on Trent right now!

It's been half a decade since Trent Reznor produced The Downward Spiral, an album so emotionally raw and explosively angry, it found an instant audience, not just among ostracized losers, but with everyone. Rage is universal, and Reznor tapped into that rage in a way that gave him instantaneous worldwide celebrity. Everyone bought that fucking album and a song with the chorus "I want to fuck you like an animal" became a top ten radio hit. You're not likely to see that happen again any time soon. Maybe that's the genesis of the whole problem. Maybe Trent figured that, having almost single handedly given pop music a radical face lift with The Downward Spiral, he could do it again by just making the same album, only twice as long. ("Gee, it seemed like a good idea at the time.")

It would be so much easier if I could say that this record flat out sucks. But this is not the case, and woe is me, for I am torn. Musically, The Fragile is not devoid of impressive moments. There are gorgeous piano glissandos, delicate keyboards, and aural landscapes of mind-bending complexity, dense tribal rhythms, barrages of riveting synthcore and a moment or two where Trent gets down and gets funky! Adrian Belew's signature guitar figures are written all over "Just Like You Imagined" and Bill Rieflin's indelible percussive touches buoy the nearly perfect (i.e. very few lyrics) "La Mer." If this were an album of instrumentals or, better still, a film soundtrack, it would certainly rate as a most ambitious, creative and genuinely stirring accomplishment in experimental soundscapes. Unfortunately, Trent has to open his mouth and ruin everything. The many instrumentals (three on the Left disc alone) provide much-needed respite from otherwise incessant, unmitigated, self- indulgent whining.

It's hard to pick a starting point, since The Fragile is so heavily flawed, but itís quite clear that Trent's songwriting ability has launched itself into the ionosphere of badness. These lyrics are obvious, pedestrian, pretentious and just plain bogus. And we've heard every one of these songs before. In five years, the world has changed, but Trent is the same guy, the tortured soul of rock and roll. The Fragile sounds like Reznor spent two years on the music and wrote the lyrics as a hurried afterthought. It's almost as if he took inspiration for these thin, verbally overwrought songs from entries in his teenage journals. Lyrically, The Fragile is at best a bloated, ineffective amalgam of ideas already done to death on The Downward Spiral, coupled with a mediocre retreading of Broken (where Reznor absolutely would not stop screaming about how much he hated his then-record label). Yawn.

The Fragile comes with the lyrics printed on the insert, so it's easy to follow along with Trent going-through-the motions-of-sincerity. I couldn't uncover one couplet in the offing that packs either the visceral wallop of "I wanna fuck you like an animal" (from "Closer") or the delicate emotional swaddling of "I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel" (from "Hurt"). Listening to The Downward Spiral, whether Trent's screaming like a mental patient about being a big man with a big gun, or whipping out some dead-on rhymes like "My whole existence is flawed/You get me closer to God," it wasn't difficult to imagine yourself inside his head. Now I have to admit I don't know what the fuck he's talking about. Sadder still, I don't really care. . On the originality scale, Trent's lyrical subject matter gets a sub- zero rating or a big fat F.

Here's an example From "The Way Out is Through":

"Underneath it all/We feel so small The Heavens fall/but still we crawl."

Um, okay, whatever.

Behold, a typical, emotionally-stunted line from "The Wretched":

"Stuck in this hole with the shit and piss."

Here, Trent is, at the very least, guilty of questionable tact.

Check out this evidence of brain death from "Where is Everybody?" where Trent manages to be both heavy-handed and lame:

"Pleading and needing and bleeding and breeding and feeding exceeding."

I waited five years for this crap? Did he sit down to write with a rhyming dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other?

Finally, the coup de grace, from "Even Deeper":

"I have everything/Yet I wish I felt something."

If Trent is looking for sympathy because he's feeling less than fortunate, perhaps he should try reading a daily newspaper. Maybe it took five years for Reznor to release a new record because he wanted to keep everyone in suspense for as long as possible before revealing that he had nothing new to say.

I will now compose a Nine Inch Nails song that could be substituted for any song on The Fragile. I call it "Life is Fucked and So Are You." It goes like this:

"Life is fucked and so are you/
You fucked me, now I'll fuck you/
I'm fucking right and you're fucking wrong/
So shut the fuck up and hear my song/
Why bother trying/When you just end up dying."

Oops, I forgot to add the word "Decay" in there somewhere. My bad.

News flash Trent: Everybody has problems. We've all experienced the death of a loved-one, changed jobs, gotten sick, broken up with lovers and been ripped off. In most cases, we've survived the shit; gone through it and come out on the other side. But not Trent Reznor. Trent is Fragile (get it?). It is important for you to know that he is still depressed, tormented and angry and he is ready to tell you in excruciating detail just how much his life sucks. If Trent thinks he is unhappy, he should join the fucking club. Someone who refuses to take their Prozac is someone I have no time for.

My guess is that if you forced 100 people -- chosen completely at random -- to listen to The Fragile in its entirety (that's both discs), say twice in a row (just to be fair), 20 would fall asleep, 20 would not be impressed one way or the other, 20 would be driven temporarily insane, 20 would figure out ways to escape from the room, 19 would plot revenge against you, and one person would dig it. This is painful for me to admit, but the hardest part of writing this article was having to endure the nerve- fraying ordeal of multiple playings in order to really give The Fragile a fair shake. The Fragile is by far the most disappointing major release of 1999. You can quote me on that one.

Some people really dig this album, and it debuted at number one on the Billboard chart, so someone is buying it. I have a few friends (who will probably stop speaking to me after they read this) who worship at the altar of Trent and genuinely seem enthralled with The Fragile. If this shit floats your boat, more power to ya. Maybe staying in the relationship is easier than admitting the thrill is gone, but I'm over it. I'm ready to file for divorce. It's time for Trent to spill the whine already. Trent Reznor once produced a record -- a bona fide work of art, if you will -- that put him at the forefront of an entire musical genre and made him the biggest rock star in the world. He is a millionaire who lives in a mansion (I've seen it!) in one of the most beautiful cities in America. He is adored by legions of fans and has influential friends in high places. Trent Reznor has probably turned down more sex than I've had. And I'm supposed to feel sorry for this guy? Nigga, please. These lyrics feel 100% in authentic and do not resonate with me at all. I don't believe a word he's saying. Trent Reznor has made a career out of being almost clinically depressed, but I bet he's crying all the way to the bank.

If you have no exposure to the music of Nine Inch Nails and wonder what all the hysteria is about, save yourself the $25 or, better, invest in a copy of Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. Trent will never be able to transcend the material on those two groundbreaking albums and I believe that The Fragile will be his last important release. If you already own his catalog, pick up the new Filter CD, Title of the Record, or go retro and snag a copy of the amazing, newly released Best Ov Psychic TV. The Fragile is bullshit on a bun and it doesn't take 20/20 vision to see that the Emperor is naked.

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This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.