Gonna Dress You Up In My, Uh, Hair Shirt

Dr. Dre played mixologist on "Even Deeper."

Trent Reznor is obviously a perfectionist, as Nine Inch Nails fans who have

been waiting for five years since The Downward Spiral will tell you.

He is, they will be happy to hear, still a nihilist: he seems to have been

spending most of that time coming up with ingenious lines for miserable

teen-agers' yearbooks ("For once in my life I feel complete/ And I still

want to ruin it"). In fact, he's practically a solipsist. Even though most

of the songs on The Fragile have a "you" in them — "We're In

This Together" (RealAudio excerpt) is a lighter-waving love ballad gloriously translated into

industrial-rock vernacular — Reznor claims to be abandoned by

everything but the void. More than once, he asks where everybody went; his

answer turns out to be "the world is over and I realize it was all in my

head" ("Please").

What Reznor is not, and knows he's not, is a melodist. Almost all of

his tunes lurk around a few notes the same way, and you can tell exactly

when he's going to start screaming. On the other hand, he's rivaled only by

Kevin Shields as rock's greatest texturalist, and The Fragile sounds

magnificent. In his hands, guitars become a menagerie of unidentifiable

beasts, a phalanx of pretty hate machines, wallpaper that comes alive if you

get too near it. Almost every track has its own sonic fingerprint: the

seasick wobble that bends "The Day The World Went Away" out of shape, the

half-time bass boom that submerges "Even Deeper" ([RealAudio excerpt] on which Dr. Dre, of all

people, is credited with mixing assistance), the stadium room-tone of the

Marilyn Manson kiss-off "Starfuckers Inc." His love for shocks is coming out

in arrangements as much as words these days; mechanical rhythms and acoustic

instruments dance around each other almost pornographically on the album's

opener "Somewhat Damaged" (RealAudio excerpt) and the final riff of "No, You Don't" ends the

song by scorching it to the bone. There's never been a Top 40 album that has

integrated this much subtle noise and seething atonality.

But there's a wearying side to Reznor's rich excesses. The Fragile is

clearly meant to be a grand statement on the scale of Pink Floyd's The

Wall, whose producer Bob Ezrin is credited with "final continuity and

flow." What it's got is a serious sprawl problem, with no compelling

justification for its expansiveness. Six of its 23 tracks are instrumentals

(although the jackboot nightmare "Pilgrimage" is awfully cool), and far too

much of the second disc just recapitulates the ideas of the first one,

sledgehammer style. It could have been an explosive, even classic, single

album, but that album has been carried away by the torrent from Reznor's

burst dam.