It’s been ten years since pretty hate machine merged industrial music with mainstream rock, and five years since the downward spiral catapulted Trent Reznor and his one-man group nine inch nails into the forefront of “alternative” music. So it seems fitting that on the eve of 2000, Reznor has released his third full-length album as a double CD. Though equally as problematic as nine inch nails’ earlier work, the fragile ultimately satisfies.
Industrial music sounded dated when Reznor began mixing it with pop beats and grunge riffs, but now his mixes seem to comprise a genre of their own, and as such seem fairly predictable. Songs like “the wretched” and “somewhat damaged” could have been tracks that never made it onto the downward spiral, while “pilgrimage” sounds like a forgotten sample from the broken EP. This is not to say the songs aren’t good, but that on their own they seem to falter.
This trend towards familiarity reaches its peak in the six instrumental tracks which seem to exist more as fillers than as actual songs. Listening to “just like you imagined” remind one more of VAST or Aphex Twin than nine inch nails; harsh edges have been transformed into repeating piano riffs. In addition, “la mer” appears to be an instrumental reprise of the vocal track “into the void,” which struck me as both unnecessary and rather odd, since “la mer” is on the first disc while “into the void” is on the second.
One of nine inch nails’ best properties is the rage inherent in the music, and the fragile seems almost complacent in spots. The lyrics reflect this softening as well, as Reznor’s typical diatribes on being betrayed have turned into equally ineloquent, almost sappy verses. Contrast broken’s “last” with the fragile’s feel-good anthem “we’re in this together:” “look through these blackened eyes/you’ll see ten thousand lies/my lips may promise but my heart is a whore” has become “you and me, we’re in this together now/ none of them can stop us now/we will make it through somehow.”
Despite a good third of the album being quite forgettable, the rest is equal or better than most of the downward spiral. On the first disc, the title track and the first single, ‘the day the world went away,” are both hard-hitting and catchy. They combine two of the best elements of Reznor’s previous works, novel hooks set against a pounding bass backbeat and swelling, unforgettable crescendos.
However, it’s really on the second disc that the music kicks into high gear and begins to showcase Reznor’s abilities. “the way out is through” slowly builds up until the guitars, drums and lyrics attack at once, in a way reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s stadium-rocking anthems. Right on its heels lies “into the void,” one of the more fun and experimental diversions for Reznor. It mixes glam rock with a Queen-like flair, which sounds eerily like Marilyn Manson’s “Drugs.” Unlike the latter, Reznor keeps the sound simple, catchy and pounding instead of celebrating glam too much. Like nine inch nails’ remake of Queen’s “Get Down Make Love,” it manages to take the sound in a new, surprising, and ultimately successful direction.
The album continues to fail lyrically, but it makes up for this lack with a good combination of dark visions like “ripe (with decay)” and straight-ahead rockers like the inflammatory “starf—kers, inc,” in which Reznor manages to jab at music insiders while unabashedly lifting lyrics from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
As the second disc ups the ante with more hard rock than slow, glum compositions, it lifts the album up as a whole. To be fair, there are too many songs that could be simply thrown away, but the others win back nine inch nails’ reputation from the hordes of imitating bands. If only Reznor could see fit to produce an album in shorter than five years, I might be truly happy.