Nine Inch Nails Break Their Mold On The Fragile

Double album chronicles the usual depression and rage, but with different kind of sound.

After five years of virtual silence, Nine Inch Nails are set to return

Tuesday (Sept. 21) with a sprawling two-CD set that plumbs bandleader

Trent Reznor's seemingly endless well of despair but also seeks to smash

the paradigm of industrial music Reznor built more than a decade ago.

The Fragile, with 17 pop songs and six instrumentals, is a roller

coaster ride of emotion framed by warm-sounding pianos, mountains of

buzzsaw guitars and the requisite pounding industrial beats.

What's changed on NIN's third studio album, which arrives half a decade

after the second, The Downward Spiral, is how Reznor created those

beats.

Rather than the robotic, mechanical thwack of programmed drums that

propelled such early hits as "Head Like a Hole" (RealAudio

excerpt), much of The Fragile features what sound like

live drums — and they are even more ominous and bombastic than their

computer counterparts.

The percussion in the warm, organic "I'm Looking Forward to Joining You,

Finally" (RealAudio

excerpt) may be hands slapping a cement floor, while the title track,

an almost sentimental love song, juxtaposes groaning, fuzzed-out guitars

with a beat that appears to be metal chains dropping to that floor.

What hasn't changed is Reznor's sharp-edged introspective nature. Songs

on The Fragile trace a trail of betrayal and the feelings of loss

and anger that follow in their wake.

"I tend to overthink things and overanalyze," Reznor was quoted as saying

in a Sept. 19 New York Times article.

"For The Downward Spiral [1994], there was rigid set of guidelines,"

he said, describing that album as a brutal, icy affair that had an

armor-like shell to keep the listener out. "With this record, the framework

and the guideline was complete train-of-thought subconscious — you

go where the music takes you."

"The only real conceptual thing was the title, The Fragile," he

continued. "I knew that before I started. I didn't want it to be a shiny

slick machine, I didn't want it to be tough."

The 34-year-old singer's new vulnerability can be felt from the 104-minute

album's haunting first sound, the four-note acoustic-guitar loop that

opens "Somewhat Damaged." The tranquility doesn't last long; a pounding,

metronomic beat and throbbing bass soon overtake the acoustic sound with

layers of destructive, grinding noise building up until the song sounds

like a broken machine eating itself from the inside out.

"Somewhat Damaged" is one of several tracks in which Reznor seemingly

deals with another of the album's major themes, the fear of inflated

expectations and the desire to hide from those pressures. "In the back

off the side far away/ Is where I hide where I stay," he sings, proclaiming

himself "too fucked up to care anymore."

Reznor, The Fragile's co-producer and primary musician, weaves in

classical, baroque piano interludes ("The Frail"), hip-hop beats ("Where

Is Everybody") and soaring industrial rock ("We're in This Together"

[RealAudio

excerpt]) over the course of the album.

Former King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew brings a little of his former

band's prog-rock grandeur to the ominous tribal techno instrumental "Just

Like You Imagined" and the ambient creepfest "The Great Below," which

ends disc one.

David Bowie/Smashing Pumpkins pianist Mike Garson adds chaotic minor-key

trills to the former, and to "The Way Out Is Through," a slow-boil

whisper-to-a-scream horror movie of a song that opens disc two. The album

also features the hauting single "The Day The World Went Away"

(RealAudio

excerpt).

In perhaps the most surprising collaboration, gangsta-rap producer and

MC Dr. Dre is credited with helping mix the schizophrenic "Even Deeper."

Built on a pinging sonar sound, a stuttering, drum-and-bass-like beat,

sawing violins and the requisite buzzing guitars, "Even Deeper" is a

spooky chronicle of self-doubt and self-loathing featuring the stinging

lyric, "Sometimes, I have everything/ Yet I wish I felt something."

When he's not beating himself up ("It didn't turn out the way you wanted

it, did it?" he sings in "The Wretched"), Reznor takes potshots at those

who have betrayed him. Two of those musical arrows appear to be thinly

veiled slags of former protégé Marilyn Manson.

The already-released "Starfuckers, Inc." is joined on The Fragile

by the equally biting "No, You Don't" (RealAudio

excerpt), a menacing techno-rock dance song with blast-furnace

guitars and sneering vocals. "Baby's got a problem/ Tries so hard to hide/

Got to keep it on the surface/ Because everything else is dead on the

other side," he screams, apparently at Manson.