Review Summary: It’s the type of album where its problems upon first listen end up not being problems at all.
To start off, let us take a glance at The Fragile’s album cover. In the top right corner, we see what appears to be the Nine Inch Nails symbol, but most of it is obstructed from view by an unusual red sheet, if you will, that is propped up against two surfaces that appear to be walls. The symbol is blocked in such a way that it seems as if the logo is hiding.
Above the red board, the album cover’s background is hard to quantify. The very top is a thin strip of white canvas, with a bit of grey beneath it that is strangely pixilated. The colors on the cover are deeply saturated to the effect that you can almost make out the texture of them if you could touch it. All of these strange elements bring up a word; mystery. Mystery is a word that can not only sum up this strange album cover, but the entire album. The Fragile was a mystery in many ways; the effect it had on Trent Reznor, its place in the Nine Inch Nails’ discography, the vague and non-linear concept that winds itself around the songs, but most importantly, the mystery within the music itself.
If Nine Inch Nails are to be attributed with anything, it is that they are always a group that delivers a unique, ominous package with every release. Whether or not that equates to quality, it is undeniable that with each release there is something new to expect. With The Fragile, Nine Inch Nails offer their most unique release that can only be summed up as a journey. A journey of complete mental delusion that goes boldly out to uncharted waters, and certainly teeters to the edges of destruction and failure, but somehow emerges even more glorious at the end of it all. The path that the album goes on is one that creates moments of sheer brilliance and unique songwriting. Although once that unique path has been chosen, the album looses its footing, going off on detached sequences of odd incoherency. What is so captivating and interesting when looking back on The Fragile, is that these seemingly bad and inconsistent elements of the record contribute even more to the mysterious feel that is present, which makes the album even more peculiar.
One of the reasons The Fragile is so deserving of fascination is because the record is ambitious beyond belief. The album is two discs, with twenty three songs between the two of them. It is not only the length that explains its ambitiousness; it’s the odyssey of changing atmosphere and instrumental feel as the record progresses. Right from the starting opener Somewhat Damaged, a wave of innovation is presented as the acoustic guitar increases in angst by the strum, sprawling into a truly raw and viscerally angry song. As the album progresses, different instruments and tonal approaches are used in various ways to create an overall package of abstract sound and truly alternative industrial.
An interesting issue with the record is that because of its ever changing sound and enormous length, the irregularity in the music is pushed to a point of almost breaking. In most double-disc albums, the extra amount of songs lead to an overall mediocre package. The Fragile is similar to this rule for a different reason. Although most of them are brilliant pieces, when stacking up a bunch of songs that are so different from one another usually doesn’t work out too well. Especially in the second disc, the songs get so lost in being unique and odd that the direction of the album becomes skewed. The entire album is so unconventional that it begins to teeter very close to absolute incoherency. This would be an actual problem if it wasn’t for the fact that The Fragile is supposed to incoherent.
As stated earlier, mystery is a word that is apparent when analyzing The Fragile. Another compelling aspect is the alleged concept that is in the record. Although throughout the record’s strenuous inconsistency, with lyrical themes that all have a very diseased and decayed emotion to them, it is hard to determine if there is even a concept at all. There are certain thematic indications, but the lyrical continuity is as diverse as the music. What’s compelling is that even the idea of a concept within this massive and abstract record speaks layers to how intriguing it is. The Fragile spirals into so many different emotional feels and original atmospheres that to even conceive a linear direction in terms of lyrical approach adds even more the mysterious theme.
This idea of mystery in every facet of the album is what proves its brilliance. On looking back, the record is far from perfect. The second disc strays far off course from any direction, and as an entire package The Fragile really is strange. But there is something about this album that is brilliant, something that can’t be easily defined or even recognized. When viewed in a different light, some of the overly weird and out of place songs are truly unique. When they don’t fit into the mold of the record, they are songs to gawk at, and are the ones that perfectly display the mysterious essence that has been captured flawlessly by this album. And it is the realization of aspects like those that truly show how brilliant The Fragile really is.