It hasn't been easy being a Nine Inch Nails fan the last couple of years. Not only has Trent Reznor taken over five years to produce a follow up to "The Downward Spiral", one of the best albums of the nineties, but his reputation has also, at least in my eyes, been tainted by his collaborations with silly shock rockers Marilyn Manson.
Fortunately, all such thoughts are swept away when the new album "The Fragile" finally reaches my ears. It was a huge mystery how Reznor should be able to take things further, both sonically and lyrically, than he did on "The Downward Spiral". But somehow he has succeeded both to reinvent himself and to keep a core that is pure Nine Inch Nails.
To begin with, where the rhythms on "The Downward Spiral" were all muscles and pumping blood vessels, on "The Fragile" they're stripped down to the raw bones, the bare skeleton. Still with a menacing power, but dry and cold. At first, the music feels equally sparse. Just these drums, guitars reduced to pure shattered noise, throbbing bass and fuzzy electronics. But after a few listening rounds, the music suddenly mutates into something much bigger. New melodies appear from nowhere. Textures emerge, revealing soundscapes almost as complex as on "The Downward Spiral". Still, the production bears a cold quality, a feeling of unbrushed lead. Paired with Trent Reznor's vulnerable voice and desperate, fleshy lyrics it evokes a mood near the perverse marriage of car crashes, prosthetics and sexuality in David Cronenberg's movie "Crash". Or near the grey isolation of David Bowie's Berlin years.
Spread over 23 songs and 100 minutes, "The Fragile" isn't such a perfectly held together journey as its predessor, but it's nevertheless an infinitely fascinating experience.
Ambitious as always, Reznor has once again made a concept album. But this time it's more about recovery, mostly from a broken relationship. He goes through all the states. On the first disc, which is the most aggressive one, it's all hatred, self loathing and despair. It's also the feeling of trying to hold on to someone you're bound to lose. Especially in "We're in This Together", something of a Reznor's version of Bowie's "Heroes", where the two persons of the song are still "in this together" after everything they've went through. Combined with an astonishing chorus and an equally astonishing production, with guitars that roar like a jet engine, it's a song that makes you want to dance at the same time as you're about to break down and cry. Reznor doesn't hesitate to show his bitterness either. In "The Wretched", the lyric goes "it didn't turn out the way you wanted it to" and he spits out the words like it hurts to keep them inside.
But no matter how great the heavy, angry tracks are, the highlight of the first half is still "The Great Below", this album's answer to "Hurt". It's a song so beautiful that I wouldn't know where to start to describe it. The guitars buzz strange ambiences, the vocals and lyrics are so emotional that they almost hurt and when the strings enter it's just... pure magic.
The second disc is somewhat calmer, and seems to be more about reconciliation. The mood is lighter and more playful - "Into the Void" is dubby electronic funk, while "Where Is Everybody?" is the closest Nine Inch Nails has come to hip hop since "Down in It". But Reznor never seems to be able to escape his agonies. As he puts it in "The Big Come Down": "there is no place I can go there is no way I can hide/it feels like it keeps coming from the inside". And the last words on "The Fragile" are "you remain/I am stained", in the mantra like "Underneath It All".
All in all, this is an overwhelming experience. Music doesn't get much more intense than this.


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