Chicago Tribune April 2000

Not so fragile : Trent Reznor bounces back from his downward spiral

On one side, there is Trent Reznor as cartoon -- the larger-than-life rock star who put an erotic charge in industrial-rock with his band, Nine Inch Nails. On the other, there is Reznor the reclusive musical visionary - one of the most distinctive sonic architects of the last decade. And in between the two poles is "The Fragile," the extraordinary double-CD released last year that tries to make sense of it all. Complex? You bet. Ambitious? Of course. An artistic success? "The Fragile" ranks with the best headphone records in rock history, a work that reveals its depth in a way that some of Reznor's heroes -- Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Brian Eno, David Bowie -- surely would appreciate.

Still, Reznor's timing couldn't have been worse. The public isn't buying artistically complex rock albums in this era of Kid Rock and Britney Spears. Whereas Nine Inch Nails' previous album, "The Downward Spiral," turned into one of the last decade's defining albums on its way to more than 3 million sales, "The Fragile" has already sunk off the Billboard top 200 albums chart after debuting at No. 1 last fall.

The commercial setback has not gone unnoticed by Reznor, who wrote, sang, performed, produced and tweaked virtually every note on the album over two years. He blended instruments and sounds in previously untested combinations: using cardboard boxes and bicycle chains as a drum kit on one song, tinkering with detuned mandolins and rusted synthesizers to conjure new sounds, and subverting even traditional instruments such as guitars and pianos until they sounded like alien intruders.

Though Reznor emerged from "The Downward Spiral" as one of the era's most outrageous and volatile rock stars (the album ends with one of Reznor's tormented characters committing suicide), "The Fragile" strikes a more emotionally complex stance. "I wanted the album to sound frail, unsure, on the verge of falling apart," Reznor says. "The approach in the songwriting was to evoke a tragic mood, an `I want to save you but I may be too screwed up myself to pull it off' tale of adversity."

Unlike Reznor's earlier work, which had the brutal insistence of a jackhammer, "The Fragile" dares to sound human, vulnerable, compassionate. "I won't let you fall apart," the singer insists on the album's title track, as if he were talking not just to a lover, but to himself.

It is a message that Reznor could be repeating on occasion as he begins a national tour. Before arriving at the UIC Pavilion for concerts Friday, April 21 and Wednesday, April 26, Reznor discussed how the artist won out over the cartoon on "The Fragile," and how that private triumph may have cost him his status as rock's most notorious and bankable outlaw.

Tribune--Your previous album came out five years ago, and when you came off the road in '97 you were one of the biggest rock stars in America. Now that huge audience isn't there for you anymore. Did you think the commercial climate for your work would change so radically?

Reznor--When I went back in the studio, I started at Ground Zero emotionally and artistically. I had to rebuild everything, rethink, expand and get out of the corner I was walling myself into. The album mirrored what I was going through as a human being, trying to mature and awaken. I was aware it took a long time, and the marketplace would change. But when it actually happens, the album starts at No. 1 and then falls into the hundreds in a few weeks, it's a weird sensation.

I was lucky with "The Downward Spiral." It hit a nerve in popular culture. Now I don't know if I'm becoming obsolete or if the generation I came from doesn't exist anymore. It was a generation of music lovers who wanted some depth, who treated the music as art. But if you put a gun to my head and said name 10 great bands that have come out in the last five years, you'd be wiping my brains off the wall. The climate right now supports disposability.

There are less people who love music in the business and more people who want to make money from it and treat it as product, disposable fluff. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I am trying to put out fine art, but I'm competing with things that are sculpted as product, and I am tremendously let down by that.

Q--What you once called "easy sensationalism" can help sell records, the myth of the dark, sinister, outrageous cartoon character that was created around you. What made you want to move on?

A--I didn't start out with this concept of an alter-ego or a character or an amplification of myself. It was me trying to tell the truth. But around "The Downward Spiral" era the stakes went higher, and more people got involved and there were more magazine covers and more myths to be created--I was living in the Sharon Tate house and getting Marilyn Manson on his feet. The attitude was "How could anyone be this depressed?" I was the poster boy for angst. By the end of the tour for that album, I realized I'd succumbed to a lot of the things I never thought I'd never turn into. With "The Fragile," I wanted to slow the train down, get off and think about who I was, and what I wanted to do artistically. It's a more mature work, and reflects how I've tried to grow as a person. But I realize that maybe I've let some people down because it wasn't more extreme, more dark and excessively evil, and I didn't come out with fangs and wake up in a coffin. That was then. This is who I am now.

Q--Does it concern you that becoming a more stable person could adversely affect your ability to write cathartic rock songs?

A--There was a time when I wondered, "What if I do find what I'm looking for? Will I have anything to say and will it matter?" But what I learned in making "The Fragile" is that coming from a more stable platform I can still create. I felt less desperate in a sense, and more free. All the ideas don't come from being depressed and suicidal. I regained a confidence in myself.

Q--You've to a degree modeled yourself after artists like David Bowie and Roger Waters, who made albums that weren't always appreciated in their time, but have grown in stature over the years. Is that where you see "The Fragile" fitting in?

A--I'd love it if 20 years from now one of my records is referenced like (Talking Heads') "Remain in Light" or (Bowie's) "Low." But the troubling aspect to me is that in the '70s music was still looked at more as art than as just product. The only thing I can do about it as a musician is make music I think matters to me, and inspires me and motivates me. I hope if nothing else somebody puts on my record and goes, "What the hell is that?" That would be great, because I got a reaction.

Q--"The Fragile" is an album about having the discipline to pull yourself together against debilitating odds. How much of that is personal?

A--Nine Inch Nails was an experiment with me in discipline. I realized when I was 23 that I had never really tried anything. Schoolwork came easy to me. I learned to play piano effortlessly. I was coasting. I realized that I was afraid to really really try something 100 percent because I had never reached true failure. I knew I liked music, but I didn't know if whatever I made would be good, so it was easier to not do it. That same fear is what stalled me from working on this record. After "The Downward Spiral" period, I was finished emotionally. And I didn't want to deal with the question of, What if I don't have anything to say anymore? What if I get stuck? So I kept putting it off. I even spent a week rearranging my studio because I was afraid to open the notebook and see what was inside. For me, what was special about "The Fragile" was chronicling that whole period of self-repair. I haven't emerged out of it unscathed, but I've put the pieces back together and made a stronger foundation to stand on.

Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.