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