Even geniuses get beat up by the press and fans sometimes. There were very few albums as big, pervasive in music culture and brilliant as Nine Inch Nails career highlight The Downward Spiral (Nothing/Interscope) was in 1994. The problem is, how do you follow it up, especially when the entire world jumped on the bandwagon and copied your style? Well, you don’t do a belly flop into stasis, you work harder than ever to expand, change drastically and do all the things. The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope) is Trent Reznor doing all the things, really well.
Sprawling and ambitious in every way possible, the fact that this album not only exists, but it is amazing is a testament to Reznor. A drastically different album its predecessor and even from the EP before it that spawned a legion of imitators of mid-nineties Industrial Metal. No, this album is none of those things. Sure it had “metal” and “dancey” moments, but this album could be grandiose and tiny too. It was great prog rock, and it was depression porn-post-Grunge, for a lack of a better term. It is maybe more naked as an artist for Reznor than TDS album was, which his saying an awful lot.
Spread over two albums and over two hours, the album is just complete top to bottom. There are hits, with three and a half singles (three official, one unintentional), but there are great deep cuts, contemplative instrumentals, and no filler in the recessed album tracks most people don’t usually single out as the best. But, oh, are they ever great. Full of anguish, musical depth, self-destructive loathing, and beyond all fantastic songcraft.
The “big” songs are blot out the Sun, big. The afore referenced ‘The Day the World Went Away’, ‘We’re in This Together’, and ‘Into the Void’, as well as the promotional single ‘Starfuckers, Inc.’ hit the pop culture like a shot, and continue to resonate in movies, television, and other media, or copied poorly without a trace of the realness. Other songs such as ‘The Wretched’, the title track, ‘Where Is Everybody’ reek of alienation, anxiety, and slick, verbose lyrics that stick to your psyche, mainlined from the writer. Interestingly the second, “right”, album side has a lot of DNA in common with Pretty Hate Machine sonically. Much of is was written collaboratively but sounds like a grown-up portrait of an artist, still trying to find his way. Like “oh hey there me from ten years ago… it’s me, now. What have I learned since then? Nothing? Cool”.
Other tracks just haunted you, and are even more prescient today like the ode to self-harm ‘La Mers’, ‘Even Deeper’ and ‘The Way Out is Through’, ‘I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally’ are a doorway to albums like Ghosts and the most recent trilogy new music. Working in his adoptive home and studio in New Orleans, Trent carefully chose his collaborators, from his core band at the time of Charlie Clouser, Danny Lohner, and drummer Jerome Dillon, to celebrity helping hands Dr. Dre, Adrian Belew, Steve Albini, Bob Ezrin, Alan Moulder, Page Hamilton, singer Dan Hill, Keith Hillebrandt, Porter Ricks, Tony Thompson, and Bill Rieflin to name a few of the dozens who pitched in. In addition to the greats, some of them were lesser names at the time but went on to impact rock and metal albums, production, culture, and bands for the next two decades.
Most of all it’s a statement album. “I am here. I am not a flash in the pan guy. I am not the “I wanna fuck you like an animal” or ‘Hurt’ guy. I matter as an artist and a person.” Lot’s of I’s and not as many we’s (except the best we: “We’re In This Together Now”). Just as Trent’s hero David Bowie shape-shifted over and over in his career, but also not unlike the way high prog/art Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel’s Genesis albums transformed your feelings; the story arc is equal to the power of the music. Nothing is a mistake or a throwaway moment. Nothing.
Although this album badly split fans and critics at the time, the timelessness of the album prevails and many from each camp now cite this as a vital release from the group. Hail The Fragile, a little time capsule of late 1990s zeitgeist and cultural soul.