Review Summary: A mixed bag really. The Left disc sports a fuller sound and a high standard while the Right disc is, sonically, more challenging and not to everyone’s taste. You choose.
After Nine Inch Nails broke into the mainstream in 1994 with the masterpiece that is The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor took some time off. Most artists tour for a bit then get to work on a follow-up but the Nine Inch Nails front man obviously had other intentions. Yes, he toured with David Bowie but that could hardly occupy five years. So what did he do? He did a bit a remixing here and there, covered some Joy Division songs and composed a few new ones.
Anyways, now that we’ve established that he did little-to-nothing after ‘95, I’ll move onto the album itself. On the outside it looks like something for all fans to sink their teeth into; a cornucopia of material to savour for the next 6 years (until With Teeth). Listening to it one thing becomes clear: this is a much more dense affair than The Downward Spiral. Not only that but it’s littered with layers of strange sounds which, when strung together with expert production, form the hit-or-miss songs that The Fragile yields.
The album itself comprises of two discs. The Left and Right, as they are labelled. The Left has more build and it’s songs stand on their own. Unfortunately these songs benefit from single listens, as this disc is littered with inconsistencies. The songs don’t play on a certain style, they jump back and forth between them.
Left aptly starts off with Somewhat Damaged, a slow, brooding song which constructs more emotion and flair with every layer added. And, oh yes, this song has layers. The Day The World Went Away blasts the listener with a harsh blast of distorted guitar while near the end there’s a sort of hopeless chant reminiscent of nostalgia and deep depression. Continuing is the double strike of The Frail and The Wretched: a beautiful piano track that leads into something that feel sinister and evil, vengeful even. We’re In This Together is a solid epic. Blistering shreds of static and distortion outline the verses and show their full intensity in the chorus. All aided by a irresistible hard drum beat. The latter of the track pushing in the piano and some whispering vocals to milk the emotional element. The Fragile finishes off the first quarter of the album with a nostalgic look at a self-destructive relationship, complete with a nostalgic medley mid-way. This is where the album first stutters.
Up until now everything has been brilliantly structured and composed albeit slightly inconsistent. Just Like You Imagined is a good instrumental but one cannot help to wonder if the track was played around with a bit more and angry vocals were added. Even Deeper brings that record back into focus with its dark beats and funky rifts until the stability is shattered by the hopelessly unnecessary Pilgrimage, a filler through and through. And as hard as it tries No, You Don’t can’t save the atmosphere. This is mainly because of the atmosphere set by the beginning of the disc doesn’t deal with these issues up front. Depression, revenge, loss, sadness and disgust have all been dealt with but within the moniker of a fragile, cowardly soul. This unleashes aggression that seems to have been looming within a driving uncontrolled blast. The disc then quiets down for it’s finale with a quiet ballad laced with a seductive French serenade on La Mer. The final song, The Great Below, is a reflective song that mirrors all of the albums atmosphere and brings it to a close.
While the songs on the first disc work perfectly on their own the Right disc works better as a whole. It’s more atmospheric and its hard to listen to the individual song on it’s own. The Way Out Is Through is again, a slow building instrumental that starts off. Not as effective as Somewhat Damaged though. Into The Void is a somewhat lifeless track that grinds along at an average pace; not really living up to the first disc already. Where Is Everybody? is a bit annoying at times with its repetitive bridge and chorus but still contains good lyrics. The Mark Is Made regains some of the ground lost by the previous tracks as it has a good, simple guitar rift that kicks in a few minutes into the song. Please furthers what The Mark Is Made has done and is quite an enjoyable song, again flirting with aggression but not quite totally succumbing to it as No, You Don’t did. Star***ers Inc. seems to blast Marilyn Manson with it’s boring lyrics but is (sort of) made by the chorus and semi-hip hop beats. The aptly named Complication reflects what the first half of the Right disc has presented and acts as a sort of interlude. At this point the Right disc isn’t looking too good but just remember that it’s all about atmosphere here, not sound.
I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally loops some great lyrics and a basic musical scope, adding an irresistible drums beat near the end. The Big Come Down is illustrated with difficult jarring industrial clonks and clangs but it seems to work all the same. The end of the album has some problems. Underneath It All is a disposable track that doesn’t fit lyrically, sonically or musically. The beat really is the killer. In simple terms, it’s too fast. But the disc does close with the so-so Ripe (With Decay). This nifty little instrumental closes the album finally and sort of paints a picture of descent into self-destruction, hate and self-loathing.
So what does all of this have to tell us. Well, to sum up: Left is more accessable in format and sound while Right gives off more atmosphere but is very iffy at times and stutters in a few places. Production here is top notch and the wealth of sound that Mr. Reznor shows will no doubt place him as one of the great musicians of our time. But, this will drive some listeners away and is a very complex and taxing listen. In the end this is a masterpiece, flawed as it is, it works but the final feeling isn’t one of satisfaction. But, is satisfaction what you really want from a Nine Inch Nails album?
The Day The World Went Away
The Great Below
The Mark Has Been Made
The Way Out Is Through
Underneath It All
Final rating: 4.5 out of 5