Album Review : Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile (1999)
Trent Reznor is a bona fide rock star in the conventional sense of the term. He writes and records killer rock music and deliberately provokes the media every now and then and nobody cares about any aspect of him aside from those two things, so that qualifies him for this sought-after title. I've loved Nine Inch Nails since I was twelve years old and discovered the sophisticated pleasures of industrial music through their songs. Is there any people that care about them aside from me, though? I've asked the question on Facebook the other day and found many people aside from me that were still, close to twenty years later, as obsessed as I am with Nine Inch Nails' 1999 magnum opus The Fragile. This album is universally beloved by fans of rock music and never got the mainstream recognition it deserved despite selling close to a million copies. In order words: it's kind of a perfect rock record.
Why do people love The Fragile so much and so WELL? Let's look into it.
I'm not going over every song here. That would defeat the purpose and I'm sure that after eighteen years, if you're reading this review it means you're already familiar with the record. The first concept I'd like to bring your attention to is authenticity. People love The Fragile because the intricate and tormented soundscapes of Trent Reznor seem to personally speak to them. It's a sad,angry and thoughtful record people allow themselves feeling sad, angry and thoughtful to. The songs on The Fragile are hypercomposed. They're meant to be taken as objects in and of themselves rather than flow into one another. But somehow Reznor's sadness and anger doesn't seem composed at all. It seems very real. Whenever rockers try to express such feelings, they always come off as telegraphed and corny like a Sonata Arctica song, so how did Reznor succeeded at expressing these feelings where so many others failed?
Well, these are multifaceted feelings and I believe the songs on The Fragile reflect that. The anger displayed on the opener Somewhat Damaged for example expresses anger yes, but also weariness and vulnerability. The Fragile's Angry Trent is not going to kick anyone's ass as much as he's going to fall into piece. This is as true sonically as it is lyrically. On The Day the World Went Away, Reznor alternates between quiet piano riffs and defining guitars in a way that really does violence to the ear. He unpredictably alternates between acoustic and electric all over the record. The mandolin bridge between iconic songs The Wretched and We're in this Together Now is one of the parts on The Fragile I've been obsessing over for years. It betrays a heartbreaking brittleness that you can't quite shake away during the power chords of the latter song. My point is: The Fragile comes off as thoroughly human. It's not embodying an idea, but rather the experience of being on the very edge without actually saying "I'm on the edge."
And that, people responded to. Self included.
The Fragile is a very different record than its predecessors Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. It's much more rock-oriented. Some critics even called it art rock when it came out, which is a little bit of a stretch, but not inherently false. There are so many disorienting musical details on this record. There is a very earnest cello at the beginning of the nihilistic and desperate Into the Void that I enjoy and yet cannot explain. Sometimes Trent Reznor uses the piano is a straightforward and heartbreaking way like on The Frail, sometimes he will use it to break the mood of an earnest rock song. It's unpredictable, moody and prog-y on the side, yet it never feels out of place. This is another aspect of The Fragile people don't talk enough about. There's a lot of expertise on this. It took about five years to make and has a lot of guest musicians and producers. Reznor even invited Dr. Dre in the studio at some point. Lots of musicians work on the "album they always wanted to make" for years and never release it. It feels like Reznor did with The Fragile.
The Fragile is not THE perfect rock record. That would be Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. But it's A perfect rock record. One that every rock music fan knows and appreciate in their own way and yet still remained to keep its artistic integrity. Believe it or not, it apparently LOST money. So, that ultimately helps with the rock mystique. It's a successful record because it expresses its loaded, negative feelings in a multifaceted and relatable way. Trent Reznor gets sad and angry on The Fragile the way you and I would get sad and angry in real life. With the loss of control and the occasional awkwardness it would involve. He expressed that on the record both lyrically and musically. I've focused on the latter in this classic review here because I take for granted you all know and love the lyrics already but there's so many folds and wrinkles on The Fragile that it partly reinvents itself whenever you listen to it. It's a record everyone loves and understandably so.