'Fragile' rocks: NIN is back

by Joe Manera | 10/6/99 5:00am

You know those moments in the Dracula films when our anti-hero reveals himself to be the sensitive sort, none too thrilled with boring holes into folks' necks for a living? How about when he mourns his inclusion in the living undead and yearns for sunlight and Winona Ryder?

Those moments--most of them, anyway--characterize "The Fragile," Nine Inch Nail's much ballyhooed new double-disc set. Uneasy with his Prince of Doom persona but clinging to it almost in spite of happiness, NIN brainchild Trent Reznor is seen staring headlong into the abyss, dehabilitated and deliberating. Again.

Before even hearing the record's first note, it was fairly obvious that just how Count Trent's emotional suicide plays itself out would in large part determine the record's success. In previous outings, Reznor was always this close to jumping, brilliant but disturbingly, usually frustratingly single-minded. Unfortunately for him, the end of the millennium pop forecast is sun and sunnier. Self loathing? That show is over, say goodbye. Questioning your mortality? Phooey ... let's just dance in shiny tops!

Nothing would be more dispiriting than for Reznor to rotely repeat himself five years after 1994's seminal "The Downward Spiral," and frowns are clearly out of season. So what's a goth to do? If you're shrewd like Reznor, you parcel out more and less of the same, only artier. The new record has plenty of bile and bite, just not as much, and a few gray clouds now lurk among all of the black ones--yes, our boy has lightened up. Throw in abrasive, tough-minded funk, and the headbanger acolytes will be all over their MIA messiah once again.

"The Fragile" is a long, angry thing, rich in discord and slavishly devoted to the beat. Reznor clearly means for you to get lost in the sonic muck, and you do: careful listens reveal that this is an obsessively composed and highly accomplished record. Listen to the scratches mulling beneath "The Wretched." Or the ghostly sub-vocals on "La Mer." It's as if Reznor painted over his canvass more than once but left clues to tell us where he was trying to go.

In this respect and several others, this record means to be a masterpiece. Pink Floyd scale, enough classic rock references to satisfy purists, enough fussy experimentation to continue Reznor's reputation as a producer's producer. It sounds terrific: mean and gorgeous, always primed to collapse in on itself. If it isn't a flat-out classic, its only because Reznor's lyrical flights of morbidity almost do him in.

For better and worse, Reznor's hiatus hasn't won him any new friends. "Where is Everybody?" most clearly illustrates his fondness for "crying/dying" couplets, and "Starf***ers, Inc." is a stab at onetime loyalist Marilyn Manson. The latter, with its stuttering, nails-on-chalkboard guitars and mordant lyrics, quotes Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" to hilarious effect. Let it be said that the man has a sense of (black) humor.

Besides playing the spurned best friend, Reznor apparently fancies himself somewhat of a decay auteur.

From "Somewhat Damaged": "made the choice to go away / drink the fountain of decay."

From "The Day the World Went Away": "I'd listen to the words he'd say/ but in his voice I heard decay."

And the name of the last song? Try "Ripe (With Decay)." Yum!

As you can imagine, these cobwebs prove to be distracting over the course of two hours. It's to Reznor's credit that his little-boy-locked-in-the-attic excesses detract very little from enjoying his actual music. NIN is not about words first and foremost, it's about groove and feeling. In this department, Trent really outdoes himself.

Mammothly ambitious without being turgid or embarrassing, the music on "The Fragile" burns with an artistry and sheer love of noise. Yes, Reznor's limited himself with the Lord of the Suffering poetry, but he easily transcends the industrial rock genre. The standout track is the sprawling "We're in this Together," with its memories of a rock fiefdom ("You're the queen and I'm the king," a reference to Bowie's "Heroes") and devotional, to-the-end-of-time lyrics.

Almost as impressive is "The Way Out Is Through," a paranoid, whisper-to-a-scream boiler whose barely audible mantra is "All I've undergone / I will keep on." Elsewhere there are Prince-ly beats ("Into the Void") and maze-like aural throbs ("The Big Come-Down"). While the words retreat into themselves, the music unfolds and expands.

So, no, Reznor wasn't just twiddling his thumbs these past five years. While it may over-rely on old tricks, "The Fragile" is a positive step forward from a man that would surely be lost, artistically speaking, without one. Reznor has been quoted as saying that he wants a wife and kids, and these worldly concerns inform the new music. He doesn't want to f*** you like an animal anymore. He just wants to keep you from dividing in two.

In a few more years, after he eats ice cream, goes to the zoo and plants that tomato garden, perhaps Reznor will make the album of his career. With "The Fragile," he's achieved a personal best, but the man that sings "We're in this Together" still seems very much alone. When and if this is no longer the case, it will be interesting to see how he reconciles misery and company, control and release. For now, warmer, more difficult sentiments go a long way toward making "The Fragile" mighty and important.

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