Review Summary: “It didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it did it?”
Trent Reznor once stated in an interview that he has suffered from an alternative form of writer’s block in that as opposed to not being able to produce anything at all, he produces far too much and isn’t satisfied with any of it. I for one can completely see exactly what Reznor is referring to, because I believe the third album from Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile
, is the best example of a display of an artist in a scatter-brained state of a foggy creative process; struggling to be content with his work, and having trouble knowing precisely what he wants out of the final product.
With grunge and alternative metal, the ‘90s were a dark and angsty time for music already, and when Nine Inch Nails brought the raw noise of industrial music integrated with deeply-cutting emotive lyricism into the ring, it fit in perfectly, and the name Nine Inch Nails quickly rose to the top of the world in popularity at the time. With the 1994 release of Trent Reznor’s project’s second album The Downward Spiral
, Nine Inch Nails had secured their position as the most popular name in industrial music ever. NIN brought the genre into a more accessible light by being the first act to give a cold and mechanical genre a definite face with an honest sense of humanity for the first time, and themes detailing purely vulnerable and identifiable emotion.
Anticipation was high for his follow-up to The Downward Spiral
, and after a six year waiting period, Reznor delivered in quantity as opposed to quality with his first double album The Fragile
. As opposed to the closed, confined, and at times claustrophobic atmosphere of The Downward Spiral
, here Reznor goes the polar opposite route and spreads his music outward instead of inward on The Fragile
, developing a sprawling two discs worth of the most grand and fleshed-out soundscapes Reznor had ever crafted in his music career thus far.
And therein lies the central flaw that hurts The Fragile
the most: it is the very definition of a ridiculously tumescent album. Double albums work when the abundance of material that is offered is consistently on the same level of quality all-around, but that is not the case here at all. It appears that Reznor had outright refused to trim the fat with this one, as The Fragile
is plagued with so many throwaway filler tracks, half-baked ideas, tonal inconsistencies, and tracks that don’t justify their lengths, that any regulation of the scale of its ambition is practically nonexistent.
While the average song on The Fragile
has a running time of around 4 – 5 minutes, a notable portion of its two discs is comprised of instrumental tracks that long overstay their welcome. Instrumentals such as “Just Like You Imagined” and “The Frail” work well as viscerally delicate interludes because of both their gripping presence and relative brevity, but the other instrumentals such as “Pilgrimage” and “Complication” are nothing but pointless filler tracks that can’t help but sound like unfinished rough drafts or ideas not fully thought through that come off as unnecessary in how they accomplish nothing, and don’t sound as if they comfortably belong on the album as they feel as if they were just thrown into the bunch of songs for the sake of it.
Discarding the fat that really should have been trimmed here, the main songs and backbone tracks of the double album are severely lacking in engaging nature. “The Wretched,” “Into the Void,” “Somewhat Damaged,” and “The Day the World Went Away,” showcase everything they have to present within their first two minutes, and then quickly diverge into wearisome repetition behavior by losing any and all sense of urgency, and being completely vacant of anything effectively compelling or interesting. “Even Deeper” is the biggest culprit of this deliberate characteristic, as it opens by dragging on and on in a sluggishly monotonous, dull and bland build up for a pace, and then becomes painfully lethargic by the halfway point as it just drifts off and aimlessly wanders, seemingly without any idea of when or where it plans on concluding. “La Mer” is initially fetching with its lyrical passages spoken in a French female voice, and the classic grand piano motif of the album is pretty to listen to for about a two minutes or so, but it ends up being nothing but exhaustingly mundane by the four minute mark.
It’s clear that Reznor focused on going for height, but bigger doesn’t equal better, and even though he is expanding the scope of his compositional methods to a vast and broader space, The Fragile
feels hollow because Reznor forgot to fill this space with captivating substance. There’s not too much of the meticulous and intricately layered details put into these songs that had become a known trademark to his production habits on all of NIN’s previous work.
is also apparently supposed to be somewhat of a loose and very open to interpretation concept album of sorts, but it’s so unfocused, with such a jagged and difficult terrain to navigate, and full of so many pointless and throwaway filler tracks that leads listeners off-road and into detours that simply lead to useless dead ends, that aside from a recurring motif reoccurring lyrical passages throughout, whatever concept The Fragile
may have behind it is nearly impossible to even vaguely identify because of how it meanders with a complete lack of any form of driving force, and has no clear idea or set focus in mind that consistently courses through the two discs. Besides, when the lampooning, yet gruesomely unfitting “Star***s, Inc.” (which was originally meant to be a B-Side but was included on the album at the last minute for whatever reason) plays towards the end of the second disc, any hope of whatever concept The Fragile
may detail being taken seriously at all is completely and utterly thrown out the window.
Reznor has also stated that the main theme behind The Fragile
is “things falling apart,” but it seems that he has taken that metaphor too literally in representation of it in the music itself, as the broken and disjointed guitar string plucking that is used as the foundation for songs such as “Where is Everybody?” and “The Big Come Down” sacrifice enjoyment for symbolism, and just end up sounding discordant, and downright goofy to listen to when paired with Reznor’s hoarse screams of personal anguish.
Thematically the album also displays another glaring flaw: Trent Reznor’s lyricism. While The Downward Spiral
had a concept that derived its power and staying effect from its overt blatancy of a storyline about a man’s descent into relentless depression and ultimately his climactic suicide, and boasted lyrics that were true poetry in how vividly and convincingly they conveyed the brutality of spiraling depression in a no holds barred fashion like nothing else before it, Reznor's lyrics on The Fragile
are the bitching and moaning of excerpts taken from a fourteen year old high school outcast’s personal journal in comparison. Reznor just sounds juvenile and unintentionally hilarious at times with tired and shallow sequences of overbearing angst in lines such as: “Stuck in the hole with the *** and the piss and it’s hard to believe it could come down to this,” “Broken, bruised, forgotten sore, too *** up to care anymore,” “Try to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away,” none of which can even hope to hold a candle to any of the lyricism found on The Downward Spiral
in terms of raw emotional depth.
The relatability on a personal level of the naked and desperate exposure of a peeling human psyche that the The Downward Spiral
’s lyrics confronted listeners with was highly accentuated by the trapped and closed-in atmosphere of the album that brought listener’s into a very face to face range with Reznor himself. Since The Fragile
is the complete opposite of this, Reznor’s delivery of these lyrics don’t help the continually whining tone one bit, as due to the sheer spaciousness of all these songs, Reznor is naturally provoked to wail these lyrics in a more elongated and nasally style than on any other Nine Inch Nails album, and the wails in turn are only heightened by the album’s capaciousness; turning into shrieks of trivial topics centered around only self-loathing.
Reznor actually focuses on reflecting on whether or not he’s already run out of things to write about on “Where is Everybody?,” “and I’m running out of things I can do,” and also when he sarcastically states his own lyrical conventions, “bleeding and needing, exceeding/lying and crying, denying,” which is a keen self-observation on his part that unfortunately rings all too true throughout the entirety of The Fragile
. Both in the downgrade lyrically, and in the texture of the music itself which has production with a more clean finish akin to alternative rock, some of The Fragile
actually shows Nine Inch Nails as in the same category as the industrial rock bands Reznor inspired such as Stabbing Westward. This is especially true on the song “Please,” which is a very quick and unmemorable song that’s only notable for being the closest thing to 21st century contemporary hard rock that Nine Inch Nails has ever put out, and really belongs nowhere on this album.
It’s a shame really, because perhaps the greatest disappointment about The Fragile
is how it shows just how much Reznor had pigeonholed himself into a corner ridden with nothing but angst and misery. There was so much that could be done with NIN’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine
, that deftly blended the pop of Depeche Mode, aggression of Ministry, and experimentalism of Skinny Puppy into an album that had tracks you could dance to in high spirits, rock out to in fury, or brood to in sadness. Pretty Hate Machine
was only ten songs long, and it had much more variety, diversity, and memorable substance in those ten songs than The Fragile
has in two whole discs. It’s a devolution, but some could argue that at this peak in Nine Inch Nails’ popularity, Reznor had not trapped himself into a sound oriented with depression completely, but rather embraced and capitalized upon the dark and tormented singer-songwriter trends associated with the ‘90s, and dominated over it completely. Well, Reznor had already perfected the craft of unhinged self-destructive music with The Downward Spiral
, which still remains to this day as an unmatched album in the thematic boundaries it breaks, which are the same themes that The Fragile
merely tries to capitalize upon in size alone, and in doing so, appears to be concerned with delivering a wide selection of tracks to make up for a six year waiting period, rather than a concise amount of songs of exceptional quality.
Not all is bad though, there are some spots of light. Even if the thought process behind it is unsorted and lacking in quality control, this is still the most ambitious and artsy attempt at an industrial album that has both mainstream appeal and experimental integrity, even if the execution is ridden with errors and inconsistencies. Also, though they aren’t integrated in a smooth manner where both are harmonious, the album displays Reznor honing and exhibiting his skills as a pianist more than ever before, and trying to strike a balance between harsh industrial noise and elegant chamber music. “Where In This Together” the longest song on the double album at a whopping seven minutes, is also the only song on The Fragile
to display a message of hope in its lyrics with Reznor reaching for a light at the end of the tunnel for once, even if it loses steam before its halfway point and becomes way too ridiculously gradual.
Unfortunately though, everything found here, both the good and the bad, are just variations on the landmark feat that was achieved with The Downward Spiral
, and not actual progressions in any area except backwards into redundancy for both Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Ultimately, the way The Fragile
tries to reinterpret the limiting direction of sound Nine Inch Nails had become known for is in such a bloated, wildly uneven, inconsistent, glacial and tedious way, that it’s beyond excusing. The Downward Spiral
perfectly captured a man falling apart on album, and with Reznor’s journey down a downward spiral of his own at the time of The Fragile
’s release with drug addiction, suicide attempts, and writer’s block, it’s a tragedy that The Fragile
ended up perfectly capturing a man falling apart with
his album instead.