NIN spiral upward to pop immortality

nine inch nails: the fragile - oct. 1, 1999

Strong enough to stand the test of time
This is as good as music gets.

The Fragile, the new double LP from Nine Inch Nails, is the best album of the year—and probably of the decade as well. The five long years since NIN mastermind Trent Reznor released The Downward Spiral have finally produced a true masterpiece, an album that towers above virtually every rock and electronica record in recent memory.

The Fragile chronicles the turmoil and self-doubt that sidelined Reznor from music for so long. Though these are not new themes for NIN, the devastatingly honest acuity with which they are detailed is unprecedented even in Reznor's own oeuvre. He refuses to hide behind the familiar loud-guitar-and-driving-beat Chicago industrial formula, eschewing it for a strangely vulnerable and gorgeous combination of experimental noise and melodic songcraft.

A large portion of The Fragile is devoted to Reznor's rage at Marilyn Manson, a close friend who turned on Reznor when the older musician most needed Manson's support. "Just like you always say, we'll make it through/ Then my head fell apart and where were you?" Reznor asks in the opening track, "Somewhat Damaged." The song builds from a few plunks on a guitar to a howling whirlwind of distortion, adding further power to his pointed question. Manson is targeted even more venomously in "The Wretched," a plodding monster of a song in which Reznor declaims, in a voice choked with hatred, "The clouds will part and the sky cracks open/ and God Himself will reach His fucking arm through/ Just to push you down, just to hold you down."

However, Reznor is his own greatest enemy. His struggle to meet his own artistic expectations—and those of the world—led to one of the most celebrated cases of writer's block in pop history. Ironically, this frustration is depicted in some of the record's catchiest tunes. "God damn, I am so tired of pretending/ Of wishing I was ending/ When all I'm really doing is trying to hide," Reznor admits in "Where is Everybody?", the funkiest slice of hard rock since Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf." In the infectious anthem, "Into the Void," he chants: "Nothing ever grows and the sun doesn't shine all day/ Tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away."

The album's most interesting topic, though, is a new one for Reznor: someone has infiltrated his formerly solipsistic world. He addresses this upheaval with touching candor on "We're in this Together," screaming, "Even after everything/ You're the queen and I'm the king/ Nothing else means anything." And at the album's true high point, its title track, Reznor sings a chorus of beauty and honesty: "It's something I have to do/ I was there, too/ Before everything else, I was like you/ I won't let you fall apart." Followed by the almost tangible torment of the instrumental "Just Like You Imagined" (with astounding work from musicians Mike Garson, Danny Lohner, and Adrian Belew), it's a moment that eclipses even Underworld for sheer splendor. It's a privilege to hear songs of such power.

The Fragile sets a new standard for popular music. Precious and few are rock albums this beautifully constructed, this daring, this honest-to-God original. In an era of mind-numbing musical mediocrity, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have made an album for the ages. (Interscope)

—Sean Collins