the final brick in his wall
The last time Trent Reznor set out to shock the
world, he had an easier job. It‘s been, five years since the Nine Inch Nails
auteur dropped The Downward Spiral, crunching
punk and goth and Depeche Mode and God knows what else into the diary of a
teenage death-disco vampire. Ha had a shocking sound, trampling over dance
beats with. machine screams fierce and funny enough to kill off the entire “industrial”
genre in one stroke. But the world was a much more innocent place in 1994. You
remember the carefree days of grunge— it was a time before Heaven‘s Gate,
before Oklahoma City, before Justine Bateman‘s announcement that she was
accepting Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Michael and Lisa Marie were just
a couple of crazy kids in love. Korn was just what white people called maize.
Trent has to show and prove for a more jaded world — he‘s a vampire version of an
aging action hero, and he‘s getting too undead for this shit.
But The Fragile
isn‘t the music of a man going quietly. Trent comes on like an avenging disco godfather
returned for the big payback. The Fragile
is his version of Pink Floyd‘s The Wall,
a double album that vents his alienation and misery into paranoid studio
hallucinations, each track crammed with overdubs until there’s no breathing room.
The stun-volume guitar riffs, intricate synth squeals and interlocking drum-machine
patterns flow together as a two-hour bubble bath in the sewer of Trent’s soul. Even beautiful moments like
the piano ballad “La Mer“ are full of tension; acoustic bass and an African mbira
decorate the piano until a live drum kit shows up to splatter itself all over
the studio walls.
There‘s definitely a prog-rock vibe here: The
title comes by way of Yes, after all, and the sequencing was done by Bob Ezrin,
who has lorded over rock-opera productions from Lou Reed, Kiss and Pink Floyd. This
is the sort of album where you expect Roman numerals in the song titles and a
libretto on the gatefold—clearly, Trent wants to party like it‘s 2112. But for
all the prog textures, Reznor‘s saving grace is his ear for rhythm; even at his
most turgid, he‘s got a beat.
The amazing seven minute “We‘re In This
Together“ builds from an insinuating
muted pulse into screaming beatboxes as Reznor pledges his devotion (‘I won‘t
let you fall apart“) while bombs drop all around him. He doesn’t have much to
say about his problems —‘There‘s no place I can hide/It feels like it keeps
coming from inside,” that sort of thing. But the physical vitality of the beat
offers him a way out.
Now that you mention it, The Fragile does run a little long, doesn‘t it? But excess is
Reznor‘s chosen shock tactic here, and what‘s especially shocking is how much action
he packs into his digital via dolorosa. When you listen up dose, you get engrossed
in the buried sonic twists and turns; when you put it on loud, Reznor bangs your
head with great rockers like his hilarious slap at ex-chum Marilyn Manson, a
song that Rose McGowan will not be pleased to learn is called ‘Starfuckers Inc’. Speeding up
nightclubing Bowie beats á la “Dope Show” until they howl for mercy, ladling on
the sarcasm and feedback, Trent shows the Korn and Limp Bizkit kids how it‘s
done with a sense of humor. But like the rest of The Fragile, It‘s New Wave with its finger on the trigger. Reznor
doesn‘t want to get “Closer“ here — he wants to armor himself behind a wall of noise.