Andy Maul (

June 2000

From Machine to Man: An Interpretation of The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails

Ask a few Nine Inch Nails fans why they like Trent Reznor's music so much, and you may get any number of answers, from the testosterone-fueled riffs to the amazing diversity of instruments he employs, from the incredibly energetic live performances to the oddly danceable beats of some of his more radio-oriented work. But I suggest the one thing that really sets Nine Inch Nails apart from other industrial bands, the main reason so many don't merely enjoy but actually love Trent's music, is the fact that this is music we can really connect to; the honesty and passion with which Trent examines his life and the world, in some dark way, touches us. He explores topics we never wanted to touch by ourselves, he makes it acceptable to feel the way we feel--he lets us know that someone actually understands what we're going through, because he's gone through it too.

This is not to say that only depressed, angry people can enjoy Trent's music; even if we don't feel the way he does, the sincerity with which he shares his life with us, in some way, allows us to truly see inside another human being--something we get precious little of, especially from celebrity figures and rock bands. Trent, in an odd roundabout way, actually encourages compassion--because he opens up to us completely, because he shares his soul with us and lets us see, truly see, inside his mind.

This has never been more true of Trent Reznor's work than it is of his newest album, the monolithic five-years-in-the-making double album that chronicles Trent's journey though his own mind and his attempts to overcome the incessant minor depression that he's apparently had all his life, but has only recently had officially diagnosed. More than his previous albums, he really opens up and explores the most painful and frightening pieces of his own soul, in an attempt to understand the damage he has done to himself and perhaps allow it to heal. In so doing, he allows us, as the listener, to take part in his journey, to hear someone articulate some of the things we've all felt but never really acknowledged, and perhaps to heal along with him. "This is, to me, a positive record," Trent said an interview with Cleveland Live Entertainment. "It may not read that way to the casual listener. But it was a way of getting through it, a way of dealing with it."

This album, The Fragile, is not an easy one to understand. It tells a story, yes, but a decidedly nonlinear one, sans characters and plotline. As Trent said, "I put out a record that I would want to hear. Id want to spend some time with it. Id want to listen to it 15 times before I understood it. Id want to read between the lines. And when I did, Id want to find some meaning in there."

The Fragile, being such a dense and thoughtful record, has not sold well in today's climate of passing radio fad bands like the Backstreet Boys and Limp Bizkit. Perhaps the attention span of rock fans has fallen too far since the days of concept albums from the likes of Pink Floyd and David Bowie for Trent's work to really be appreciated.

But one thing is for sure--the people who have listened to The Fragile, and have really thought about it, are far more dedicated fans than any of Bizkit's fans could ever be. And it all comes back to the lyrics--while listening to something like "I did it all for the nookie, yeah, the nookie, yeah, so you can take that cookie and shove it up yo, yeah!" might be amusing the first couple times, it's certainly not the sort of thing that communicates to fans on a truly thought-provoking level. It doesn't take much mental effort to listen to the radio-happy easily-hummable meaninglessness that currently dominates the Top Forty, which is what makes Nine Inch Nails so weird and, in a certain way, difficult to listen to. With NIN, and especially The Fragile, we have to actually work to find meaning, and we have to invest a little of ourselves along the way.

It is because of this that writing a one-size-fits-all definitive interpretation of The Fragile is essentially impossible. The music means different things to different people, and enough of the album is ambiguously written that there may be as many "right" interpretations of the album as there are people who listen to it. Perhaps more.

In this paper, I will put forward my own interpretation of the album, describing it the way I see it: as the journey of a man on a quest for healing, a quest that ultimately folds back on itself and ends with the creepy sensation of distance having been covered but no destination having been reached. I hope you will connect with my thoughts, but even if not, perhaps my sharing them may stimulate your own.

In order to understand where Trent is coming from in The Fragile, it may be useful to take a look at the story behind his previous album, The Downward Spiral. In this 1995 landmark, Trent told the story of a man progressively and simultaneously growing stronger by getting rid of pieces of himself that were holding him back, and self-destructing by going too far in that process. In the first few tracks he screams defiance at a lover who has betrayed him (Piggy), God and his followers, who have let him down with hypocrisy and unthinking atrocities (Heresy, Ruiner), and his so-called friends, who wait on the sidelines like vultures and try to eat pieces of Trent's success (March of the Pigs). As he leaves these things behind, he gets stronger but less human and more machinelike (The Becoming, I Do Not Want This), until he loses so much of his humanity that he commits a crime from which he cannot be forgiven (Big Man With A Gun). Shortly thereafter he completely self-destructs (The Downward Spiral), but leaves behind the wish that "if I could start again, a million miles away/ I would keep myself, I would find a way" (Hurt), which is, in fact, the thought that closes the album.

On The Fragile, Trent has, essentially, done just that--started again, and, amazingly enough, "kept" himself intact (though not unscarred) the whole way through. The anger and willingness (perhaps even eagerness) to cut pieces of his life away that dominated The Downward Spiral (hereafter referred to as TDS) are still around in Trent, but he now seems to have some sort of spiritual or emotional core, a promise to himself or the world that this time, he will make it through somehow. And though the album hardly ends on a positive note, he doesn't self-destruct, and he in fact learns a great deal about himself along the way.

Trent has described The Fragile as an "organic" record, which shows up in several ways. Most obvious is the greater emphasis on acoustic guitar and other more "fallible" instruments, rather than his usual flawlessly produced synths and electric guitars. He also pays more attention to the musical landscaping of the album, interweaving long contemplative minor-chord piano pieces with his more traditional hard rock.

But most of all, the organic quality of the album comes though his lyrics. He acknowledges his own fragility, and gives up the super-machine self-concept he tried to hide behind on previous records. Just the title of this album is a big contrast to his previous works. The "Pretty Hate Machine" of his debut that was "Broken" in his first EP (And "Fixed" in the remix album), the machine that defeated the man in TDS, is finally abandoned. He is human, he is fragile, he can be hurt. His humanity is at once beautiful and painful. He has not attained enlightenment, not solved all his problems, but he has acknowledged his own humanity, and that alone is a major victory.

The actual journey the album takes us on, as I have stated, is ultimately a circular one. As I see it, there are four main "acts" to The Fragile, two on each disk. In the first six tracks of the left disk, Trent starts off rather energetically by making a series of attempts to overcome or rise above his own depression, but he fails when the people he depends on let him down. However, he does find and hold on to the ability to care about others and about himself, a care we see most clearly in "The Fragile."

In the second act, tracks seven though twelve, we watch as Trent discovers a kind of inner peace that lets him keep on going without the people he once depended on. "La Mer" shows this inner calm most clearly, as he expresses a feeling of infinity and peace.

Then, in the third act, he ventures solo into his own soul, in hopes that he might learn something about himself, a journey he chronicles in the very gloomy first eight tracks of the right disk. "Please" is the most representative track of this bunch, and probably the most lyrically complex song on the album, detailing the frightening realizations he's making on his introspective quest.

As we see in the last four tracks, in act four, although he does learn a lot about himself, it doesn't help him overcome his depression. In some ways it just makes it worse, and he once again wants to tear everything apart--but he doesn't. "The Big Come Down" expresses his frustration with the failure of his own efforts, while "Ripe (With Decay)" closes the album on a note of spooky, but very human, fragility.

Does the album leave him farther along than where he started? Is there any real victory here? I would suggest the answer is yes: at the end of it all he stands, alone and bare, hurting and discouraged, but alive, and willing to acknowledge how human he really is. And although he may be weaker than when he started, he is more alive than he has ever been.

The saga starts with the blisteringly emotional "Somewhat Damaged." At first he seems to be recapping TDS--he screams about the loss of faith, the self-mutilation he also referred to in the songs "The Downward Spiral" and "Hurt," and, in general, about how messed up and uncaring he is now. But after chanting "too fucked up to care anymore" for the second time, he turns around and sings "there is a place where I hide, where I stay"--seemingly referring for the first time to something resembling a spiritual core, or at least some belief in self-preservation. It's only a brief glimpse this time, because he goes right back to screaming about being let down, but we'll see more of it later on.

There's one other thing about this song that lets us know this isn't just more TDS: the first appearance of Trent's acoustic guitar. It opens the song, twanging and just a little off-key, before the driving drumbeat and bass guitar grow so strong as to overwhelm it. But in the more fragile moments of the song, such as the moments before he sings the aforementioned line about hiding away, the acoustic guitar once again comes though. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the album: Trent summons up all his anger and energy in the form of wailing electric guitars and synths, but each time they somehow fail, they fall apart and reveal the more "wimpy" instruments such as acoustic guitars and pianos. Once again, this is the machine/organic analogy: he tries to hide behind his machines and all their technological fury, but each time they fall away, and each time his humanity, his fragility, shines through. He also introduces the organic theme lyrically, by declaring "this machine is obsolete," and by invoking words such as "bruised," "sore," and "poisoned"--all words that cannot refer to machines, only to something alive. Even if, in this case, it's a painful state of being alive.

The closing chords of the song slide into the New Agey opening of "The Day the World Went Away," soft rolling piano work that is soon assaulted full on by a barrage of flaming electric guitars. This song is possibly the most obvious example of the machine-organic dualism of the album, as the acoustic guitar struggles to be heard under the blaze of everything else, and only can be heard when the muscle-guitars are allowed to quiet down.

Lyrically, the song follows the same formula--he sings of plastic covering up life, of decay coming through in spite of the attempts made to cover it up, and again, of that core of his: "there is a place that still remains/ it eats the fear, it eats the pain." It seems he's tapping into some reservoir of humanity he really didn't know he had before--perhaps exactly because he covered it up so well with his machines.

The song grows in intensity and Trent's human voice actually seems to be starting to overtake the industrial strength of the guitars, until he is suddenly cut off. It is as if he is reaching for something, striving to overcome or to make some major breakthrough, when suddenly his strength fails him.

The next piece, "The Frail," is a soft, contemplative piano piece, though in contrast to something like "A Warm Place," he uses no synths to back himself up. He is frail--he is human, and this may be the least computer- or machine-augmented piece he has ever done.

His strength starts to return to him as the human voices grow stronger in the background, until the driving opening chords of "The Wretched" take over. This song is at once accusation, regret, and foreshadowing--the "you" in this song could easily be Trent himself. He sings of "better days, so far away," and being held down by God himself, but despite his chants of "forget it, forget it," he doesn't appear willing to give up that easily. "Not knowing when/ you're finally free/ and you could be/" he screams, before reverting to "but it didn't turn out the way you wanted it to...." So clearly, whatever attempts have been made so far to be "free" have failed, but he seems to believe in the possibility of success.

The end of the song is worth analyzing in its own right. At first it appears to be a typical Trent trick--he's cut off mid-sentence again. But the lyrics make this unusual. He sings "you can try to stop it but it keeps on coming/ you can try to stop it but it--" and is suddenly cut off. One interpretation is that this is exactly what's he's talking about--another instance of his trying to reach up and overcome, and suddenly being defeated in the process. But it seems ironic that, exactly when he's speaking of something that cannot be stopped, he very much is stopped--which leads to a possible second interpretation: perhaps he was mistaken, perhaps he can stop whatever "it" is that he thought could not be stopped after all. Perhaps he can overcome what's holding him down. Which is, in fact, exactly what he'll try to do in the next song. (It's interesting to note that on the song Ruiner from TDS, something very similar happened: while chanting "nothing can stop me now", he was again cut off in the middle of his sentence, showing that something did indeed stop him after all. But this time it's not he that he thinks can't be stopped, it's something holding him down, and the fact that he's cut off suggests that maybe, hopefully, he's wrong about that too.)

"We're in This Together" is a soaring piece of industrial rock in which he makes the most energetic and fiery attempt yet to find a way out of the hole he has dug for himself. But the effort is doomed from the start--the song opens with static-ridden and off-key guitars, which pervade throughout the song and ultimately break down.

The video to this song makes this break-down even clearer: while at the start there are masses of black-cad figures along with Trent, he progressively gets farther away from them until, at the end, he is the only one left.

In this song he expresses a point of view that we have never seen before from him: the idea of using another person for support, of strength through love of another. He also sings "we can hold on" four times--an interesting contrast to the "forget its" of just the previous song. Even if this particular effort to lift himself up fails, that idea will survive.

"The Fragile," being the title track, might be expected to hold especial meaning. And indeed, it serves as almost a thesis for the entire album, albeit a veiled one. He sings of some female who is "fragile" (the only time he actually sings that word) and who "doesn't see her beauty." And although he still says the world is ugly, "everything is meaningless," and "nothing seems worth saving," he does actually care about this person--"she matters," "I can't watch her slip away." Who is this person? It could be the same person he derived strength from in the last song, it could be someone new, or it could even be an objectification or reflection of some part of himself. Or it could be a reference to the only other female character on this album who shows up in the last two tracks of this act, namely, the sea--a reflection of the peace within himself, perhaps. Or "she" could be all these things.

The most significant verse is the last one, in which he reveals the origins of his desire to save this person. "I was there too," he sings. "Before everything else, I was like you." This is the closest Trent has ever come to possibly thinking of himself as a beautiful human being--he's admitted to being like this other person, who he does think is beautiful and fragile. He uses the past tense, which could mean a of couple things--on the one hand, as the line "but it's too late for me" would suggest, perhaps he thinks he was once like her but was broken, and lost his beauty. On the other hand, perhaps the past tense refers to how "she doesn't see her beauty"--namely, he was once like that, denying his own humanity and fragility in favor of mechanical invulnerability. In which case, he may be starting to see things a different way.

Throughout this piece a melody struggles for life, starting up and then falling apart several times before the guitar and keyboard riffs come together in the last verse. It's a fragile song, as befits the name, and we're given this sense of him trying so hard to keep everything from disintegrating around him. It's a struggle for Trent to hold something beautiful together without breaking it (one is reminded of his propensity for destruction at live concerts), but he's determined to try.

"I won't let you fall apart," he sings, "it's something I have to do." But in this act of investing the whole of his spirit in saving another person, he's helping himself as well. He's caring, and caring an awful lot, despite having very recently chanted that he was "too fucked up to care anymore."

Caring intensely about anything can be painful, as anyone who's truly lived knows. The only way to avoid pain entirely is to care about nothing--to be an unfeeling machine, as Trent tried to become on TDS, chanting, "nothing can stop me now, 'cuz I don't care anymore... nothing can stop me now, 'cuz I just don't care." He's come a long way since then--we've probably never seen Trent show more sincere care and possibly even love for a human being (as opposed to the lusting, neurotic dependency he's reveled in on such tracks as "Closer" and "The Perfect Drug") as we do here. And it's hard to miss the raw emotion in his voice, as he proclaims his intent to not let this person fall down the spiral he knows so well--of self-hate, of not caring.

This is essentially the crux of the album, and Trent's greatest victory: he has learned to care. He'll suffer quite a lot on his journey, in entirely new ways even, but this willingness to be human will endure.

Thus the first "act" of The Fragile ends. He has made a surprisingly vigorous attempt to pull himself out of his own depression, largely by invoking the support of other people, meeting with only limited immediate success but gaining the courage to keep trying.

The next track, "Just Like You Imagined," is a blazing piece of avant-garde and incredibly complex instrumental rock and roll. He pits his piano against the strength of his guitars again, but this time they seem not so much to be in conflict for dominance as they were in "TDTWWA" and "WITT," but, in fact, to complement each other nicely, swirling around each other as the intensity builds to an incredible major-chord climax: the first time on the album, in fact, that this has happened without Trent getting suddenly cut off. The major chords and other dynamics of the music, not to mention the title, give this piece an unusual feel: one of almost-victory, or at least, not the violent rage or gloomy pessimism that we're used to. Of course, Trent can imagine some pretty awful things (as anyone who's seen the "Broken" video knows), so having something just like he imagined might not necessarily be good--it could go either way. But based on the feel of the song and its soaring complexity, it seems like a good guess that Trent feels as if something, finally, is under his control.

If the song ended on that track, I'd call it a victorious story about a man challenging his own depression and winning by caring. But, of course, it doesn't end there, and this is the point at which the plotline starts to turn on itself and lose all sense of linearity. One of the worst things about depression is the undertow: when you think you've overcome... it runs even deeper.

And this is exactly what Trent says, on the very next track, appropriately titled "Even Deeper." Here it is brought home to us that we aren't listening to some heart-warming commercial story of a man pulling himself up out of the dungeons by sheer force of will, but rather to a real, often times discouraging tale of the introspections of Trent Reznor, human being. "When I think I can overcome/" (as, perhaps, as recently as the last song), " runs even deeper!"

An especially telltale line, revealing a part of Trent that will become even more important toward the end of the second disk, is this: "for once in my life I feel complete/ and I still want to ruin it." Trent fears failure as much as any of us, but he's had time to get comfortable with it... it seems he may fear success even more.

He's still trying to use other people to help him, too: "could you try to help me hang on?" This, however, will be the next thing to go, on the next two tracks, as he decides he's better off leaving the support of the wretched behind.

The synthetic marching band sounds of "Pilgrimage" sound downright bizarre coming from Nine Inch Nails, but oddly fitting. We hear the war between the mechanically-tinted chanting of legions of people and Trent's lone, human voice. It's an instrumental summary of the struggle of the album: on the one hand there are the masses of people trying to drag Trent down--the wretched, the "beautiful ones" as he'll call them later on Starfuckers, Inc.--people who hold themselves down, use themselves up, and start to take on a lot of the qualities of machines by sacrificing their humanity. Trent the one-time pretty hat machine was once one of these. But now, on the other hand, there's the human being--frail, fragile, and alone, but still struggling against the inhuman masses.

The title is interesting, for there are at least two pilgrimages taking place here. There're the masses, of course, but whatever journey they're on is not one that Trent is following. The synthetic sound to their cries underscores how ultimately inhuman their quest for meaning really is. And then there's Trent's pilgrimage, which may fall outside the boundaries of the usual follow-the-leader mass-produced spirituality typical of pilgrimages, but is a quest for meaning more sincere than theirs could ever be.

It also isn't escaping Trent how shallow everyone else is being. Given his rocky history with TVT records (who, according to Trent, hypocritically started putting commercial concerns ahead of artistic ones and tried to force him to write more pop-like music) and how many industrial-rock outfits have cropped up in the wake of Trent's success, capitalizing on the sound but not the sincerity, it's easy to see where Trent's cynicism regarding other people may be coming from.

In the context of this album, it seems Trent must first leave these people behind, with all their commercialized spirituality, before he can move on himself. He does so on the next track, "No, You Don't," a hard and aggressive slap at insincerity and greed. It's hard to miss the possibility that this refers to the state of mainstream music as well--how the messianic Alanis Morrissettes and the self-degrading Limp Bizkits are all ultimately after the same thing, commercial success, and that their images are simply facades aimed at specific target audiences. They're "smiling in their faces/ while filling up the hole," as Trent puts it, but he points out that "you think you have everything/ but no, you don't." Ultimately, what they don't have is what he's managed to hang onto when everything else was falling apart: his sincerity.

So he leaves them behind. And though he's getting progressively lonelier, he's also liberating himself, and allowing himself to find his own spiritual core, not someone else's.

The next two tracks detail the peace he finds within himself, using the somewhat curious analogy of the sea. In "La Mer," New Agey pianos roll along with drums prancing along for the ride--and though it doesn't exactly sound victorious, it's not gloomy either. It paints out the sea: eternal, vast, cold, easy to get lost in, but also full of life, beautiful, and powerful. The lyrics, spoken in French by a soft female voice, tell us "and when the day arrives/ I'll become the sky/ and I'll become the sea/ ...and the sea will come to kiss me/ for I am going/ home," closing with the famous line from The Downward Spiral: "...nothing can stop me now."

He used that line several times on TDS: as a declaration of uncaring in "Piggy," of mechanical invincibility in "Ruiner," and of violent power-tripping on "Big Man With a Gun." But now, for the first time, he appears to mean it: not that he's returning immediately to a watery grave (though the temptation may be there), but that nothing can stop something eternal and vast like the sea: he has realized that, somewhere inside him, is this force, this infinite power. That all us fragile and tiny life forms ultimately come from the sea and will ultimately return to it... that, even in our fragility, we are part of something greater. This is a powerful thing to know, and quite a positive step for our formally nihilistic Mr. Self Destruct.

In "The Great Below," deep, pulsating chords and a chorus of female voices (angels? the sea?) underscore Trent's voice as he explores the consequences of his actions so far. He has lost a lot, objectified in this song as a female, and he feels tired, regretful, perhaps wistful. But it's only in having exhausted his energy that he's let himself realize what he needs to know, just as, throughout the album, it's only when he lets his blazing guitars (the mechanics) fall away that we can hear the acoustics and soft pianos (the organics): "ocean pulls me close/ and whispers in my ear/ the destiny I've chose/ all becoming clear," he sings. Having reached this point of semi-peace with himself and with the world, he's really starting to realize--in his heart--how much of his life, his so-called "destiny," he has chosen for himself.

Thus the second "act" and the first disk of The Fragile ends. He's come a long way on the first disk: he started with the old familiar sting of self-abuse, but this time used that anger to fuel a series of zealous attempts to fight his problems directly with the help of other people. Though these efforts failed, they helped him realize his own ability to care. This in turn helped him decide to leave behind those who don't care, and though he's left lonely by this, being alone has helped him discover a source of spiritual strength and acceptance.

The second disk opens with another song on the same musical vein as the last two, "The Way Out is Through." This is a nice tie-in for the two disks: he is at once feeling strong and determined, and also aware that a long journey lies ahead of him. "All I've undergone," he softly chants, "I will keep on." The title is interesting: through what? Though a whole lot of unexplored emotional and spiritual territory, if the rest of the album is any indication. The fact that this title is sandwiched between "The Great Below" and "Into the Void" is interesting, too: on one side is the undertow, warm and inviting, and on the other side is the unknown, into which he must venture if he wants answers about himself. There's no way around this: he's going to have to take a really good look at what he doesn't want to see, his own soul. And though "we feel so small" and "the heavens fall," "still we crawl"--as if, though he knows he's tiny against the backdrop of the universe, for once he believes in himself, and he's prepared to take this journey.

One more thing that's worth noting is that this is the last time he'll use the word "we." From now on it's just he on this journey. Later he'll wish someone could help him and wonder what everyone else is up to ("Where is Everybody?"), and won't particularly like the answer ("Starfuckers, Inc."), but he certainly won't ask for their support.

The weirdly danceable beat of "Into the Void" sets up an interesting mood for the start of his journey into his own mind. "Tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away," he chants--the story of his life, and this album in particular. And yet he doesn't seem particularly pissed off about it any more--in fact, he almost seems downright acceptant, maybe even making fun of himself.

Regrettably, though, this mood won't last. As the journey continues, it gets progressively gloomier as Trent seems to fall further away from success, however he might define that here. On the next track, "Where is Everybody?", he explores himself in perhaps the most open and honest way we've ever seen, admitting "God damn I am so tired of pretending/ of wishing I was ending/ when all I'm really doing is trying to hide/ and keep it inside/ and fill it with lies/ open my eyes?/ maybe I wish I could try!" It takes a lot of courage to admit how hard it is to see though your own facades. Especially given how angry he tends to get at people who aren't sincere (as he did a few tracks ago on "No, You Don't"), it's obviously painful for him to admit, "I never wanted to be like you/ but for all I aspire/ I am really a liar/ and I'm running out of things I can do."

But no one else is any better off; though he wishes that "come on, there has got to be someone/ that hasn't yet become/ so numb/ and succumb," it's clear no support is forthcoming. When he names off the activities people are engaged in, they turn out to be pretty shallow--"pleading and needing and bleeding and breeding," and so on.

And yet, he's doing all these things too. Trying and lying and crying and dying--he's not so different from the people he left behind. And that realization hurts.

The album starts getting a lot lonelier about here. For Trent, especially given this odd sense of being similar to a lot of people yet connected to no one. And for us, because Trent starts singing remarkably less--as if he's drawing inward, progressively looking harder at himself. And given the gloominess of the music that underscores this journey, he's not having a good time of it.

"The Mark Has Been Made" is one such gloomy instrumental track. The "mark" in question could be this recent realization of how much he's hiding from himself mentioned in the last track, or it could be the sins of the flesh that haunt him in the next track, or something else entirely.

It's interesting how in this song the nature of the instruments keeps changing. The drums keep switching intensity levels, instruments start and stop, and from the ambient gloominess eventually springs a violent building riff that ends suddenly. We're given this spooky sense of things leaping out from unexpected directions, of constantly being confronted with unrecognizable but unpleasant beasts.

In the last thirty seconds or so of the song, we hear Trent's muffled, aquatic voice softly calling, "I'm getting closer... all the time." On the one hand, we could interpret this as the fact that, by venturing into the sea of his own soul, he's getting closer to the answers he set on this journey to find. On the other hand, he could be getting closer to drowning, to giving up. Perhaps a little of both.

The next song, "Please," is dense and lyrically complex, playing a number of different ideas at once. The easiest interpretation for this song is that it's about some physical sin--probably drugs or sex, or some bizarre combination of the two. But it could be about anything people use to fill themselves up, to make themselves whole. Trent used to rely on whatever-it-was to fill up the hole in his life, and now that's he's confronting the scariest parts of his life, his desire to return to the temporary release of whatever his chosen sin might be is stronger than ever. "There was a time when it used to mean just about everything," he sings, "just like now."

But at the same time he's attracted to this thing, he knows how it can never really complete him or heal him. There's a bit of the familiar sense of hopelessness tugging at him ("push it away but it all comes back again"), but he's a lot more aware of how temporary and insufficient a release it really is ("it fills up the hole, but it grows somewhere else instead"). "Will you please complete me?" he begs, then immediately answering his own question: "never be enough/ to fill me up...."

Buried in this particular conflict is a lesson for Trent that can generalize to the rest of the album and his life in general: more and more, he's becoming aware of how much of everything he's gone through was entirely his construction. Filtered through the loneliness that blankets this part of the album, it sounds almost solipsistic: "well guess what?/ the world is over and I realize it was all in my head," he screams to whoever it is he thinks is listening.

The next song, "Starfuckers, Inc.", seems downright out of place amidst the dour introspection of this act. It's as if Trent suddenly realized that while he was struggling with his depression in isolation, the same shallow and vulturelike people he left behind on the first disk have gone off and capitalized on Trent's success by selling their souls. And again, the single thing he's angriest about is that these people are completely insincere about what they do--doing anything to get to the top and making a business out of it--hence Starfuckers, Incorporated. (Indeed, historically, this is about what happened--in the five years it took Trent to release this album after TDS, a gaggle of smaller bands cropped up and usurped at least seven of Trent's nine inches, while no one came even close to his level of sincerity. The media has been quick to label this a farewell slap to NIN's imitators, and most pointedly, Marilyn Manson, though Trent has denied this reference in interview. It all makes the line "I bet you think this song is about you, don't you?" even more ironic....)

It's also interesting to note that this is the one song on the album in which all the lyrics, with the exception of the last verse (which is pretty much lifted from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" anyway), are written as if coming from someone else--the market-driven poseurs Trent is attacking. It seems logical, then, that this isn't to be taken as part of Trent's journey, just a harsh intrusion of reality on his world. Once again, we're reminded that this isn't a formulaic 12-step recovery plan here: this is a real life experience, and reality has a nasty way of cropping up in the most inappropriate places.

The instrumental "Complication" underscores this even further. Dissonant guitars and Trent's distorted screaming voice build a disturbing image of things going completely wrong and a lone person struggling against them all.

In a certain way, this song is about the breakdown of Trent's introspective journey. What exactly the complication is (an outside source, like the last song would suggest? the dangerous undertow he keeps referring to?) is unclear, but the soul searching that started with the almost-upbeat "Into the Void" has been growing steadily more gloomy until finally this song starts to break it apart entirely.

It also marks the end of a musical era on this album: this is the last prototypical NIN guitar-and-synth-driven song we'll hear. From here on it's an increasingly disturbing series of drum-and-bass tracks, and finally the creepy cacophony of "Ripe (With Decay)" at the end. The third act has ended--Trent went on a journey to the bottom to find answers, and now we get to see the fruits of his labors.

The fourth act, on first glimpse, appears almost heartbreakingly dark and resigned. After everything he's gone through, is he really giving up? Does he really regret even having started this journey? Perhaps not--perhaps there is a certain amount of triumph, at least in the realization of his humanity. But it's certainly not the blazing victory he was searching for back in the beginning.

"I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally," is a nightmarish low point for Trent, and a song almost as lyrically complex as "Please."

In interviews he has revealed this song to be about his grandmother, Cara, whose death during the production of this album hurt Trent greatly. Interestingly, this is the first time Trent has revealed a specific cause of his depression and anger rather than screaming about it in general terms.

He sings this song in a soft, almost whispering voice, and entirely in the third person except for the chorus line. That, coupled with his desire to rid himself of regret by forgetting the past ("everything is safer now/ there's always a way to forget...") create the very disturbing impression that he's starting to disassociate with himself--to stop feeling pain by deciding not to care, like he was so eager to do on TDS. But yet, it seems this time he can't do that; pain (and therefore care, we hope) stay with him: "tears of regret/ frozen to the side of his face," and the chorus, "the smell of sunshine/ I remember sometimes" allow this to shine through.

Though we as the audience might consider it a good thing that he can't stop caring, Trent himself may have a different perspective--in a certain sense, he seems regretful that he started this journey at all. "Thought he lost everything," he whisper-screams, "then he lost a whole lot more."

This idea continues on the next track, "The Big Come Down," which is still drum-and-bass, but at least with Trent's good old screams back again. "Try to get back to where I'm from/ The closer I get the worse it becomes," he wails. "There is no place I can go, there is no place I can hide/ it feels like it keeps coming from the inside." It's as if, having tried so hard to overcome his problems, and still faced with a violent undertow ("try so hard to make the pieces all fit/ smash it apart, just for the fuck of it"), he's more discouraged than ever. Only by actually exploring the extent of his depression and anger does he get a sense of how vast and daunting it really is.

"Underneath it All," the last track with lyrics on the album, explores this further. The "you" to which he refers is, as usual, ambiguous, but it seems like the most obvious target is whatever inner demons--depression, rage, maybe even madness--that he's been trying to exorcise this whole album. "Crucified/ after all I've died/ after all I've tried/ you are still inside," he tells us. Yet it's interesting to note that he's not actually raging about it on this track, just pointing out the facts of the matter--"you remain/ I am so stained."

So, has he failed? Proximally, yes. He hasn't overcome the problems he wanted to solve, and, in fact, seems to have made it worse by trying. If this was the last song it would be easy to call this album a very bleak one.

But yet, there's one more track. Dark, disturbing, and filled with minor chords, "Ripe (With Decay)" hardly seems it's going to make the album any less bleak. But there's an interesting thing to note about this track: in every respect possible, it's the most organic track we've ever heard from Trent. Absent are the muscle-guitars and industrial samples, the synths and the drum machines. Instead, pianos and a violin weave disturbing off-time melodies around odd samples of what sound like crickets and maybe bees. The name, too, gives the impression of something entirely organic, free of any technology, but yet, with its own problems.

It's as if he's saying: I've won the fight against the inhuman, technological side of myself. I'm not mechanical. I'm human, I'm fragile. As a living being, I can be damaged, and I can decay, and I can feel pain.

Whether this is good or bad is, essentially, up to us. Trent doesn't make the value judgment for us. At the end of a long, disturbing journey, filled with triumphs and trials, Trent is alive, alone, and in pain. But in a certain way this pain is good, for it shows he cares, and no one can take that away.

He opened the album by screaming how he was "too fucked up to care anymore," and then proceeded to contradict this by caring a hell of a lot for the next twenty two tracks.

Perhaps this is his victory and his defeat, all in one. Living beings feel pain, machines do not. Yet living beings can heal, and machines cannot. He has chosen his destiny: he chooses life, and everything that comes with that choice.

Life is not a fairy tale: life is a package deal. Trent won't presume to tell us what to do with our lives, but by sharing his own journey, he allows us to think about our lives through the eyes of another. In today's world of prepackaged spirituality and the singles-driven radio, no wonder an album that requires people to think is underselling.

But record sales are an indication of the state of pop culture, not of the value of a record. The truly great albums--the ones that last in our memories and endure through the ages--are the ones that get at the real meat of what it is to be a human being, to be alive.

And by that reckoning, The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails is one of the greatest albums of our time.

<< Previous Page

Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.