Nine Inch Nails's third full-length album, released in 1999 by Nothing/Interscope Records. Continuing the band's sonic evolution beyond 1994's The Downward Spiral, The Fragile has a more expansive and varied sound than earlier Nine Inch Nails releases. Four years of development significantly changed Trent Reznor's outlook on life, so this is at the same time both a lighter and more confused album than its famous predecessor. Many of the songs echo the theme of a turbulent soul discovering a time of smooth sailing.

Although it receive reasonable critical acclaim, including some Grammy Award nominations, it was in many ways a financial failure. The massive fanbase accumulated by The Downward Spiral had, in a lot of ways, given up waiting. Many of those who remained faithful were disappointed that The Fragile was less dark and angsty than The Downward Spiral. Most of the people who bought and enjoyed this album were either longtime NIN fans who remembered 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1992's Broken, or new fans discovering the band for the first time with this album (such as me). The album features 23 tracks over two CDs:

Disc 1
  1. Somewhat Damaged (4:31)
    The album begins with an insistent bass line and builds several interweaving instrumental riffs before Reznor begins singing the lyrics, full of alienation and anger. The riffs and trademark NIN noise build throughout the song, as do the lyrical expressions of dependence and need for a certain someone. The song ends with a shout of "Where the fuck were you!" and trails off into the next. A rather mediocre song, but a reasonable opener.
  2. The Day the World Went Away (4:33)
    This song breaks out with very fuzzy guitars and screaming riffs, grabbing the listener's attention as forcefully as the previous song. However, the sonic assault ends with the introduction of the lyrics, a simple and effective poetry recitation. The pounding music begins again and blends with a choir singing "Na na nah, na na na na" (I'm not kidding) swelling to a warm but abrasive climax.
  3. The Frail (1:54)
    A simple piano statement of a flowing melodic theme, stunningly devoid of synthesiser noise. For once, truly consonant, this track shows strongly that this is not just another Downward Spiral
  4. The Wretched (5:25)
    Leading directly off The Frail, this is the first in a string of three truly great compositions. Nine Inch Nails at its most genre-defying, this song blends industrial rhythms and angsty, accusative lyrics with a smooth consonance atypical of traditional industrial. It is infectious and insistent. The lyrics convey a sense of watching someone hit rock bottom, knowing that you've been there yourself.
  5. We're In This Together (7:16)
    A love song, NIN style. Seven minutes of adrenaline-soaked music, with lyrics that express an unbreakable connection with another, despite strong adversity. "The farther I fall I'm beside you / As lost as I get, I will find you / The deeper the wound, I'm inside you / Forever and ever I am a part of / You and me" A friend of mine might like this to be the song played at his wedding, it is that kind of song. It powerfully portrays the sense that, despite everything, you are incomplete without your companion.
  6. The Fragile (4:35)
    The third in the trilogy of songs beginning with The Wretched, it is another departure from the industrial sound; a (mostly) soft, almost tender ballad. The powerful, melodic chorus of "I won't let you fall apart" serves as a centre for the verses's reflections on the plight of a 'fragile', isolated woman. The 'she' of this song is most likely the same as the 'you' of We're In This Together and The Wretched. This song closes off the progression from 'You're on your way down', to 'I'm down here with you', to 'I'll help you up' with style and poise.
  7. Just Like You Imagined (3:49)
    An instrumental which manages to be both noisy and upbeat. Defies description in the same way as many other NIN instrumentals.
  8. Even Deeper (5:48)
    A bit of a let-down after the preceding five tracks, but shows evidence of a large amount of attention to detail. Another relatively quiet song, but very dark. Lyrically, it is a restatement of many of the themes of Somewhat Damaged, but concentrates solely on the sense of self-destruction and alienation. Moves smoothly and quietly into the next track.
  9. Pilgrimage (3:31)
    The pounding, insistent, somewhat Middle Eastern sounds of this instrumental break into the attention of the listener almost immediately. Through its layered instruments and shouting voices it very effectively conjures the image of a vast crowd proceeding through a desert. The usual NIN noise is suppressed here in favour of the clear, impressive soundscape.
  10. No, You Don't (3:35)
    A very 'stereotypical' NIN song, it combines noisy, distorted guitars and weird studio effects with angry but cheesy and trite lyrics. Despite this, it manages to be sonically effective, though it has several earmarks of filler.
  11. La Mer (4:37)
    La Mer opens in a similar quiet, piano-based manner to The Frail, with another melodic figure being introduced into the fabric of the album. Just before this starts to get boring, a funky bass line and full drums join, followed by fuzzy, droning synths. The different instruments build in a very trance-like manner (the musical genre, not the state of consciousness), only to fade out at the end.
  12. The Great Below (5:17)
    This song has a similar dark beauty to The Fragile, with music which draws you in and wraps itself around your awareness. A sense of longing permeates the the lyrics of the song, but the climactic stanza speaks of purging the self and entering 'the great below'. A brilliant piece in the manner of Hurt from The Downward Spiral, forming an effective end to Disc 1.
Disc 2
  1. The Way Out is Through (4:17)
    Disc 2 begins, like Disc 1, with a driving beat fading in from nothing. Like Somewhat Damaged, this song stays fairly calm and mellow for a while, becoming more insistent as the listener 'awakens' from the closure at the end of disc one. A thunderous climax fades into a slow segue leading to the next track.
  2. Into the Void (4:49)
    For sheer funkiness, no song on the album competes with this one. A simple beat and tremendously infectious main riff combine with catchy, anthemic lyrics to form a seamless whole. Despite the dissonant interplay of guitars and bass, it's nearly impossible not to like this song. Could have been a radio hit ala Closer if it had been released as a single here in North America.
  3. Where Is Everybody? (5:40)
    Another song in the vein of The Wretched, this song is achingly despondent with verse lyrics delivered in a way reminiscent of Pretty Hate Machine's Down In It. The narrator is, in this song, in the same place that the 'you' was in The Wretched, but this time is alone.
  4. The Mark Has Been Made (5:15)
    Another instrumental, the first of this disc. Very reminiscent of The Way Out is Through, but more atmospheric in general. Makes its mark on the listener with style.
  5. Please (3:30)
    This bass-heavy song, one of the shortest vocal tracks on the album, is strongly centred on the insistent singing. "Never be enough to fill me up" is the chorus, expressing both emptiness and need simultaneously. Ultimately, though, the song demands more of 'you' than of the listener.
  6. Starfuckers, Inc. (5:00)
    The most controversial song on The Fragile, Starfuckers, Inc. is a scathing attack on the shallow personalities that are seen all around the music industry, and Marilyn Manson in particular. Ironically, Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson made up soon thereafter and Manson then directed the video for this song! If it seems out-of-place in the progression of the album, it is. Originally, it was to only be the B-side to The Day the World Went Away, but it was included on The Fragile due to available room. If Closer didn't put Trent Reznor on the conservatives's hit-list, this song does, with over a dozen uses of the F-word and references to gratuitous oral sex. The chorus is incredibly infectious, though. A fluff piece, but not too badly executed.
  7. Complication (2:30)
    A short instrumental bridges the space between Starfuckers, Inc. and I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally. True to the name, the layers of sound grow even more complicated as the song progresses, with at least five lines layered on top of each other at the middle of the song. The last thirty seconds slowly fade away after the end of the complicated layering.
  8. I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally (4:13)
    The most verbose title on the album identifies one of the most obscure tracks on the album. Remains fairly simple musically throughout, relying on the quiet lyrics to convey any impressions to the listener.
  9. The Big Come Down (4:13)
    Heavy industrial beats and percussive guitar playing propel this song, with lyrics which adequately fit the title. A soaring synth line accompanies the chorus adding a small touch of humanity to the otherwise very mechanical music. The narrator is at the same place that he has been since Please, seeming without hope.
  10. Underneath It All (2:46)
    The most industrial song on the album. Scratchy distorted sounds fill it from the beginning to the end, often coming close to overpowering the almost understated lyrics. The narrator now realises that his life is permanently intertwined with that of 'you'. He is unsure whether this is a positive or a negative thing as the music overtakes the voice at the end of the song, forcing the lyrics into choppy, quiet lamentations.
  11. Ripe (With Decay) (6:34)
    A relatively long soundscape to close off the album. The impression it conveys is that of a blasted wasteland, with nothing but desolation as far as the eye can see. An altogether different sort of ending for an altogether different NIN album.

A friend of mine once said of The Fragile that the thing that makes it great is that you find something new in it every time you listen to it. As such, I have only scratched the surface of the musical, emotional, and lyrical bonanza which makes up Nine Inch Nails' most recent endeavour. Recommended without reservation.


Also the title track to the album. Lyrics:

she shines
in a world full of ugliness
she matters
when everything is meaningless

fragile
she doesn't see her beauty
she tries to get away
sometimes
it's just that nothing seems worth saving
i can't watch her slip away

i won't let you fall apart

she reads the minds of all the people as they pass her by
hoping someone can see
if i could fix myself i'd-
but it's too late for me

i won't let you fall apart

we'll find the perfect place to go where we can run and hide
i'll build a wall and we can keep them on the other side
...but they keep waiting
...and picking...

it's something i have to do
i was there, too
before everything else
i was like you


This writeup is CST Approved.
(CC)
This writeup is copyright 2002 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .

Album: The Fragile
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Label: Nothing Records (TVT/Interscope)
Year: 1999
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Beautiful, decaying music featuring interesting rhythms.

Lyrically, The Fragile continues to focus on depression and suicide. The theme of losing the comfort of religion rears its head again, making me wish poor Trent Reznor had just been raised an atheist. Whereas The Downward Spiral charted the singer's descent, this album merely confirms that he has stayed exactly where he was, which doesn't make for such a gripping story.

Thankfully, there are additional themes involving the singer's relationships with other people. In the opening song, he appears to be telling a tale of a lover he once had. They agreed to stay together through thick and thin, but eventually grew apart as the other person became happy, leaving him alone in his depression once more. The title song seems to show him trying to save someone else from slipping into depression like him, whereas the most catchy rock songs appear to depict a simple hatred towards Brian Warner.

In a welcome departure from Trent Reznor's usual output, The Fragile contains a wealth of instrumental music amongst its more accessible rock songs. This is just as well because many of these pieces are both beautiful and interesting, satisfying both the emotional and intellectual levels. Trent Reznor moves effortlessly between catchy rock songs, a moving piano solo, and numerous atmospheric soundscapes of noisy, decaying music, with these styles seamlessly blending into one another.

The Fragile's strongest point is the music itself. It sports plenty of complex time signatures, and some tracks even feature two independent rhythms playing simultaneously, a device which is sadly rare in modern popular music. (Technically, these are not polyrhythms as the notes rather than the bars are synchronised.)

Many instruments are used alongside the standard electric guitars, acoustic drums and synthesisers, including both prepared and traditional pianos, and even a violin sent through a delay effect. As with the different types of tracks, the instruments all seem to work together as if they had been designed to feature alongside each other.

Clocking in at over an hour and a half, The Fragile provides enough material to keep a fan occupied for a long time, especially given the repeated listens that the album warrants. Although it isn't as good as The Downward Spiral, it has a unique musical style, making it something special in its own right.

If you've already got The Downward Spiral and Year Zero, and you still want more, get this. If you want to hear interesting, depressing instrumental music, it's worth checking out for that too. Otherwise, get Trent Reznor's best work first.

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