Nine Inch Nails The Fragile
Spin 09.99
by Marc Spitz

"So impressed with what you do/Tried so hard to be like you/Flew too high and burnt the wing/Lost my faith in everything," is only The Fragile's first verse, but as an overdue intro, it pretty much explains the last five years with concise genius. These words are recited over an impossibly simple acoustic plink, as if Trent Reznor is intentionally laying a fishnet stockinged thumb upon his nose and mocking both the toxic agents of his own widely publicized writer's block and the corrosive pressure that both the media and his millions of starved fans have laid upon him and his one man band.

The deliberately simple melody of the opener "Somewhat Damaged," finds Reznor remembering, "it's this easy" to start again. And in a perverse way, it is, especially with assistance from co-producer Alan Moulder, NIN '99 core members Charlie Clouser, Danny Lohner, a makeshift chorus, a pick-up horn and string section, and esteemed studio guests like prime Bowie pianist Mike Garson, King Crimson guitar great Adrian Belew, and Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin. The Fragile's crew manages to chop and blend patented NIN synth aggro (as he does on the fuzzed out "The Wretched") with instrumentation organic to both industrial rock (the scathing "Starfuckers Inc."), classical (strings on "Ripe (With Decay)") and jazz ("La Mer,") with studio-treated sounds that have never before existed. Despite a consistent spew of lyrics explaining why he's been late for class since '94, the album's 23 tracks are pure invention, not rote confession. It's air-locked studio precision that still sounds human.

"We're In This Together," the funky lead single, represents the pretty love machine's first product, rolling off the assembly line with startling grace. Trent's older, and although he sounds pissed as he screams the chorus, if you dab away the bile and listen to what he's saying, you'll discover some seriously devotional lyrics, "the farther I fall/I will find you/as lost as I get/I will find you." This is not the same young man who searched for a soul to sell and came up empty. He's in awe; in love with something, someone: a girl, the muse of "La Mer," or the angel in "The Fragile," who "shines in a world of ugliness" and matters when "everything is meaningless." Whether she has breasts and hair or is simply the personification of some tiny savior/suicide deterrent that has allowed him to create again, she will not be fucked like an animal; rather, she will be worshipped and protected by our hero (yes, no longer an anti-hero Mr. Self Destruct be).

This is not to say that Reznor is completely above it; absorbing the candy spiritualism of Madonna and Jewel or the faux R&B of the pop-saturated charts. As brave and progressive as The Fragile undeniably is, this is still classic NIN. There's plenty of wallowing for the bedroom kids with their candles and headphones. Although there are some re-writes ("The Great Below," calls to mind "Hurt," "Where Is Everybody," could have found a home on the decade old debut, and "Into The Void," revisits the techno funk of "Closer"), it's simply a better NIN this time; more complex and less one-dimensional than the NIN of '89 and '92 and '94.

The misanthrope responsible for plucking the Spooky Kids from the Sunshine State and helping them achieve anti-Christ superstardom is feeling some Dr. Frankenstein remorse and doesn't mind sharing. He's Fragile, you see. He's found a little something, hope maybe, but there's still plenty of reminders lurking about with fake rubber tit-suits, threatening his sanity.

"Do you know how far this has gone?/Just how damaged have I become?/When I think I can overcome/it runs even deeper," he observes over a new wave Middle Eastern riff on "Even Deeper"; straining to ignore these "voice(s) inviting me away." Trent's tortured, like an arrested teenager is tortured (our alt culture has plenty, hence NIN's effortless commercial comeback). Trent's tortured like a criminal, reflecting on his sins is tortured--forever ("all the flesh, all the sin/there was a time when it used to mean everything/just like now," he shrieks on "Please"). So, smart man that he clearly is, he's trying to maintain something despite the persistence of darkness, treat himself like a diabetic, carrying his medicine along with his poison, "I'm straight/I won't crack." Fragile... you see? But unlike most basket cases, still confident enough to harmonize sweetly on "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally."

As many brilliant suicide records as there are in the tortured genius canon... Bowie's Station to Station, Loud Reed's Berlin, Joy Division's Closer, Nirvana's In Utero, there are no brilliant alternative to suicide records until now. Beyond that, there are few records in general that manage to be so thematically monolithic without sounding repetitive and dreary. Reznor knows how to excite us with the same tools less skillful artists use to make us groan. When he sings about death and despair, his music practically explodes with urgency and life. Nothing quite like the feeling of something new, indeed.