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The Age April 2000

Bed of nails: Trent Reznor gets 'Fragile' -- but not soft

A thick fog of dry ice clears, and strobes hit the four black-clad members of Nine Inch Nails like gunfire. Guitars and pounding industrial beats begin to rage as leader of the pack Trent Reznor prowls the stage like a panther, eyeballing the front row, ready to attack.

"Bow down before the one you serve, you're gonna get what you deserve." He almost whispers the line of the opening song "Head Like a Hole," before igniting the New Zealand crowd with the explosive chorus: "Head like a hole/ Black as your soul/ I'd rather die/ Than give you control."

Nine Inch Nails are back, touring behind their first album in five years, and Reznor is itching to get at his audience.

"The Fragile," a 23-song double album that reflects his continuing struggle with bipolar disorder, is a glorious return to form for the man described by Time magazine as "one of the most influential people in America" and by Spin as "the most vital artist in music today."

"The Fragile" -- a sophisticated studio-made masterpiece of layered guitars, experimental technical trickery, synths and industrial beats, and softer organic instruments such as slide guitar, violin, cello, ukulele and upright bass, all woven together in cinematic themes of isolation, loss and decay -- has been heralded by some as the savior of rock.

This was not Reznor's intention, he says. With mainstream rock at one of its lowest creative points, he wanted to give rock fans -- including himself -- something special. "If I buy a record, I want to listen to it 30 times and get more out of it each time," he said from his New Orleans home. "I didn't care if it jumped out of the speakers first time. In fact, most of the records I like, I didn't like the first couple of times I heard them.

"Music is art, and I treat it as art, and, hey, you know what, Ricky Martin has a song, and I like it, I buy it, you know; Spice Girls, I buy into whatever you're doing, for what it is -- light entertainment. I don't do the same thing, but unfortunately I have to compete with them on the charts. But I'm not trying to sell product to masses. I'm trying to make art that is accessible and subversive."

When NIN released "Pretty Hate Machine" 10 years ago, it had an underground hardcore following like that of Reznor's heroes, Ministry and Skinny Puppy. But after two years of touring and a stint on the Lollapalooza festival, he found the group had fans in Midwestern malls.

It came as a shock to Reznor, and he initially considered doing an album like Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" to repel them.

"I struggled with that, and thought, 'I don't like these people,' and they weren't cool enough to like what I was doing." But he soon realized that was a fascist attitude. "I like the idea of having something subversive that has the potential for people to think, 'Wow, I didn't think I would like that.' "

OUT OF THE 'SPIRAL'

While NIN's previous album, "The Downward Spiral," embraced the glamor of self-destruction, "The Fragile" is all about finding a way out.

"I found that 'The Downward Spiral' kind of came true and I hit the bottom as a person, and I really lost interest in everything -- especially the music business -- which I hated.

"I thought my goal in life was to be in a successful band, and I had got that, but I was as miserable as I had ever been, and I couldn't understand why that would be."

Reznor tried to repair himself through music, setting himself up in a house on a cliff in California's Big Sur with little more than his piano and a tape recorder. "It was just me and the ocean and my two dogs," he said. "I was an hour away from the nearest grocery store. And I didn't want to meet me, and I had turned into someone I didn't really like."

Eventually, Reznor started to realize what his problems were. He re-evaluated his priorities, distanced himself from people who had been a bad influence and started the healing process.

"I had forgotten the thrill of discovery and the passion of sitting at a piano and working on things. . . . It was there in such abundance that it took me two years to do an album, because we were working on 50 songs at the same time. It was all a matter of putting the pieces back together and feeling better about being a person, and I think that comes through in the record."

It might not seem obvious, but "The Fragile" is more about trying to find a sense of reason or purpose or solution, rather than a freight train headed for a brick wall, he said.

"This record doesn't sound as tough as 'The Downward Spiral.' It sounds like a wheel might spin off at any moment or it might self-collapse, and we did that by using a lot of organic instruments, and making things a little out of tune, or leaving the tape deck at the wrong speed. It's never too sure of itself. Like, 'Life's going good, but then you get hit by a bus.' That could happen."

NINE INCH NAILS

Opening: A Perfect Circle, featuring Maynard James Keenan of Tool and guitarist Billy Howerdel.

When: 8 p.m. Mon.

Where: Target Center, Mpls.

Tickets: \$25-$42.50. 612/651-989-5151.

Patrick Donovan