Several of my preferred styles of music – dark, industrial metal, visual-inducing ambient sonic sculpture, emotional prog rock concept albums, and funk-infused hip-hop/dance experimentation – came together on Trent Reznor’s 4th release under the Nine Inch Nails banner, The Fragile. A double album, coming five years after the success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, and an intense period of suicidal thoughts and crippling writer’s block, The Fragile reinforced the vast support network of fans lining up to hear the latest from their somber savior. Panned by some critics at the time of its release as being overly-dramatic and lacking editing or a check against some of Reznor’s self-indulgent tendencies, the release holds up extremely well some 14 years after its unveiling and earns a place in rock history alongside other collections sporting a unifying theme such as The Who‘s Tommy, Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, Kinks‘ The Village Green Preservation Society, Alice In Chain‘s Dirt, and Frank Zappa‘s Joe’s Garage.
Needless to say, the expectations placed on Reznor to deliver a follow-up to the amazing The Downward Spiral came not from his record label, but from himself. He’d removed the possibility of his label trying to force unwanted opinions on his musical output by creating the Nothing Records imprint under Interscope as his vehicle. Reznor’s survival through this gloomy period also brought numerous new directions for expression. He hadn’t reinvented himself stylistically, but rather offered further definition to the sound that already characterized Nine Inch Nails’ output. This can be seen in new highs and lows, dropping at times to sparse instrumental, interstitial episodes and enhancing a heaviness to the buzzing synthesizer tracks that was perhaps impossible to replicate using previously known technology. His full embrace of hip-hop rhythms and his incorporation of guest musicians’ interpretations of his compositions, round out these new directions. Producer Alan Moulder helped Reznor maintain an even keel while Bob Ezrin helped arrange the pieces into a more cohesive storyline.
The concept behind The Fragile, divided by the two CDs into “LEFT” and “RIGHT,” isn’t so much a beginning-middle-end traditional rumination, but more one which drops in and out in response to and in preparation for new, related musical themes. It deals roughly with the fact that it is impossible to create order from chaos, and vice versa. In that way, it serves as a realization of the philosophy emblematic in Eastern thought via the Yin/Yang. At the center of each contrasting black and white swirl is a dot of the opposite color, demonstrating that chaos and order are actually forces at the center of the rival force – motivating, balancing, in constant opposition. One cannot exist without the other. Reznor recognizes this truth and shares a tale of futility regarding those who still struggle to understand it. Thus, there are musical motifs which are reused across both CDs in the collection which are meant to be illustrative of this philosophy and reiterate the lesson.
Four singles were released from The Fragile to different regional markets on the globe – “The Day The World Went Away,” “We’re In This Together,” “Into The Void” and “Starfuckers, Inc.”. The best drama occurs around these singles, as Reznor tended to take more chances in his attempts to unify the hits within the record’s theme. Therefore, “The Frail,” which follows “The Day The World Went Away,” offers merely a solo piano repeating one of the album’s main motifs as mood-contrast to the sense of violation and betrayal evident in the hit’s lyrics. That motif later reappears, amongst other places, in the album’s title track as the protagonist heroically attempts to prevent the world’s plasticity and duplicity from eating away at the beauty within the psyche of his beloved.
Thus use of primarily instrumental composition in several places is frequently surprising and refreshing. “The Pilgrimage” becomes a sort of soundtrack to a sinister march of mind-boggled puppets, with chanting and cheering, and synthesizer fanfare ushering the latest crop of society’s zombies. “No, You Don’t” follows closely behind, using crisp, live drums, machine gun programmed beats, demonically-enhanced guitars, and stack after stack of beguiling aural layers. The song abruptly gives way to the instrumental, “La Mer,” with its repetitive solo piano line, Bill Rieflin’s jazz/funk drumming, barely audible vocals, and pizzicato cello. Order into chaos into order into chaos. Disc one – LEFT – closes out with “The Great Below” as the story’s narrator is compelled to seek his fate below the surging waves – a semi-transparent barrier of incredible power preventing easy, instantaneous connection with satisfying clarity. Guitars and atmospheres, both melodic and ethereally mood-inducing, are provided by Adrian Belew, Danny Lohner and Charlie Couser.
Disc two – RIGHT – continues the quest with similarly beguiling fare. To mention just a few of the standout moments, I turn to “The Mark Has Been Made,” featuring Reznor alone as he adopts methods especially conducive to this brand of storytelling. Here the beat is held to a shambling dance rhythm slowed to a pained march. Percolating synthesizers, mournfully bent guitars, and vanishing high tones are used variously to set the mood for the tales’ final chapter. “Complication” serves similar duty, but uses a repetitive, amorphous synthesizer line, more akin to a Chemical Brothers rave number, and Lohner’s strangled and tortured guitars to help change gears.
“Complication” is the set-up for “I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally,” which pleads for union with someone who’s already traveled the path of the narrator and has found release in death, or more likely in forgetfulness. The words have shifted to examine how you cannot unlearn what has already been learned, and how that fact often leads us down paths that are not only revelatory, but also pocked with longing for a previous, simpler time in our lives. Here, then, “The Big Come Down” contains the narrator’s realization that the path he’s on will never lead to satisfaction. Crafting order on the shell of one’s existence will not prevent the chaos harbored within from undoing what you’d just accomplished. A bumbling, rhythm track, punctuated by super-harshed Reznor vocals and a sample of dementedly bent electric guitar strings using no effects, propels us towards the conclusion.
The album closes with “Ripe (With Decay),” another instrumental track featuring the piano figures of Mike Garson and violin work from Steve Duda. Here again, we’re left with the music alone to summarize what has transpired. Reznor’s concept stays consistent throughout The Fragile, using lyrics as guidelines, but interacting with the listener to have them fill in their own precise meaning. The tones set by the music are therefore the single most important elements, outweighing vocals, lyrics, guest appearances, dance music conventions, and identifying signatures of previous Nine Inch Nails works.
The Fragile did not feature the first attempt by Trent Reznor to circle the wagons around a single dominant theme, nor was it, or will it be, his last. Music is pure artistic expression to him, but product must also encompass similar expression for the entire package – album artwork, stage production (including lighting and other live visual components), album packaging, press kits and promotional images. Hence, each new project from Reznor under the Nine Inch Nails name will bring new unifying themes and new challenges to his audience to play along in order to better grasp his meanings. This fact, though not unique to Reznor, elevates him above his contemporaries, if only in measure of the thought and planning that support each project. The Fragile is our best example that Reznor is operating on another plane from that peopled by the most rudimentary of pop composers. This album deserves another listen by those who’ve already fell under Reznor’s sway and by those that have let their preconceptions hold him at arm’s length. This is brilliant material and it demonstrates why we ought to pay attention to so much more than an artist’s words and music when evaluating their importance.
- Mark Polzin