Spin Magazine

December 1999

The Fragile: Album of the Year

After five years of writer's block and solitary confinement, Trent Reznor returned with a beautifully brutal examination of a depression, disillusionment, and grudging self-acceptance: By Chris Norris

If the recession hits, if the market plummets, if the whole giddy rush of millennial American optimism comes to a lurching halt-people, Nine Inch Nails will be there for you. Here in New Orleans, his adopted hometown, Trent Reznor is making arrangements. Onstage in the cavernous Saenger Performing Arts Center, he is pacing around, peering into the darkness, gearing up his five-man pretty hate machine for battle.

The handsome frontline: bassist Danny Lohner, guitarist Robin Finck, and a short-coiffed Reznor on guitar, keyboards, and angst. The backfield: Charlie Clouser on keyboards, Jerome Dillon on drums. The men-in-black world tour kicks off just a few weeks after the rehearsal, and this is the band's first time in a concert hall in four years. And Reznor, for his part, must follow one of the most publicized cases of writer's block of the decade (more than five years sine his provocative last album, The Downward Spiral) with a quick-change from studio shut-in to dramatic focal point. His navy T-shirt says OBJECT.

Holding a flat-black acoustic guitar (Gibson's limited-edition "Goth" model), the musician steps to the mic and, looking down at his combat boots, starts playing a soft, repeating guitar riff. His insistent plinking kicks off a number titled-with considerable understatement-"Somewhat Damaged," the first track on Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile.

Triggered by Reznor's edgy pizzicato, the music builds with a slow, dark intensity quite unlike the bright bursts of melody and rhythm that define most of today's computer-assisted rock. The guitar gets picked up by Finck, the punctuated by the steady, brutal downbeats from Dillon's snare. Eerie bits of atmosphere and hiss bleed into the mix. By the time the chilling, Terminator-style synth comes machine-gunning out of the speakers, cherubim perched high above the gold-leaf-trimmed stage are cowering in terror.

Leaning to the mic, Reznor croons, "Lost my faith in everything / Taste the wealth of hate in me." He gathers steam. "Made the choice to go a-waaaaay / Drink the fountain of de-caaaaay."

After two minutes of steady crescendo, the song has bloomed into a gigantic abomination of digital wrath, the musicians bathed in swamp-gas-green stage light. Reznor rides it all to a glottal-shredding climax. "Tear a hole exquisite red! Fuck the rest and stab it DEAAAD!"

Britney? Trent. Trent? Britney.

Yes, Nine Inch Nails is back, with some of the strangest timing imaginable: The Fragile is pretty much the last thing we expected in a year of aerobicized, singles-driven pop. Brooding, raging, lovely, and brutal, it's the sort of sprawling. '70s-era masterwork that engenders moods quite uncomplimentary to a StairMaster set: two CDs and a 100-plus minutes drama, despair, and fevered invention. And, strangely, it gives us hope.

Like a mordant Pet Sounds, The Fragile presents a headily ambitious rock sound: a mix of organic lo-fi and synthesizer expressionism, an ancient/futuristic world of buzzing ukulele strings, out-of-tune violins, distorted guitar, and digital beats. For inspirations, Reznor cites such static-drenched works as Psycho Candy by the Jesus and Mary Chain and Isn't Anything by My Bloody Valentine (whose engineer, Alan Moulder, has been Reznor's sounding board for years). But the songs, like all Nine Inch Nails songs, are anything but abstract.

Rather than the lurid thrills of The Downward Spiral-whose catchy tunes bout sex and death fueled many study-hall fantasies-The Fragile chronicles, in slow, torturous movements, an unglamorous descent into depression and self-negation. Despite the teen-friendly aggression and A-A rhyme schemes, this is largely an "adult" record, and not in a naughty, parental advisory way. It deals with aging, numbness, disillusionment, and uneasy self-acceptance. Not, the 34-year-old Reznor recognizes the stuff of Global Groove. Reznor's manager, John Malm, Jr., agrees. "Honestly, I don't think this fits into the larger rock world, but Trent's the kind of true artist that doesn't fit into any pigeonhole."

The Fragile debuted, as expected, at No. 1, enjoying a week up among Backstreet Boys before sliding down the charts. Though the album has gone platinum, the first single, "We're in This Together" never quite ruled radio or MTV, which used to rotate the leather-clad provocateur quite heavily. Now, the onetime national hero of male rage and doomy glamour is searching for a place among the bared midriffs and backward baseball caps.

"When I see what's on that afternoon MYV voting thing [Total Request Live]," he says, "it's like, 'Who are these people? Who's buying this?' I know someone is, and I want them to buy my record, but-good Christ! How did this happen?"

"Music is leaning really hard now," says Lisa Warden, music director at L.A.'s influential mod-rock outpost KROQ. "But I love Trent's album, and I think there are a lot of potential singles that are going to be huge. He's still relevant to 18-year-olds, still contemporary." But today's mainstream is far indeed from the one that embraced the psychosexual horror show of the quadruple-platinum The Downward Spiral or NIN's triple platinum 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. While Reznor made it tech-savvy and cinematic, his brand of post-grunge introspection and self-disgust were central to that era's alternative-rock ethos. Not anymore. While Reznor was holed up in New Orleans-suffering depression, fighting the entropy of a thousand rhythm tracks-pop culture got simple, happy, and young. Which is about as far from today's Nine Inch Nails as you can get.

"I wanted this record to sound like it was falling apart," Reznor says. "So I really went for imperfection." That entailed incorporating instruments like cello and violin-even though he couldn't really play them. While his flailing efforts may have often sounded, as he says, "like a sickly, braces-wearing, red-haired girl trying to do her lesson," once sampled and modified, they offset the chilly electronic perfection with a sense of human frailty. This wasn't simply an aesthetic exercise.

Unlike such tunesmiths as, say, Sting, who can kick back in his chateau, plunk through some Bach lute suites, and come up with a catchy chorus, Reznor hasn't really mastered the craftsmanlike approach. "I can't just come up with a witty little line or melody," he says. "I have to start with a mood, a sound. And the only way my music has mattered up to this point is that those moods have been honest. It's dealing with exactly how I happen to be feeling at the time."

Unsurprisingly, Reznor was feeling bad. "Broken, bruised, forgotten, sore," goes one lyric. "Tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away" goes another. A typical scene on The Fragile finds our narrator "stuck in this hole with the shit and piss"; the word "decay" is mentioned in three separate songs. Nine Inch Nails albums have never been cakewalks, bit this takes the bummer concept pretty fast.

"I began this record from a very humbled place. Pretty Hate Machine seemed like, 'I remember that guy, but I'm not him anymore.' Now I was someone who hated that guy-and hated himself, too."

The building a former funeral home. The inner sanctum has a crucifix-adorned candelabra, haunted-mansion curtains, and some very impressive hardware: a 72-channel mixing board, ten 9-gigabyte hard drives, 25-odd keyboards, and a Kiss mouse pad. Sitting on a black leather sofa are well-thumbed copies of the Marquis de Sade's One Hundred Days of Sodom and Del James' The Language of Fear. Guess whose house we're in.

The command center of Reznor's Nothing Records isn't all Gothic ambience and gadgetry. Right outside its door, there's a cozy kitchen with warm lights, a brewing coffeemaker, and a refrigerator gaily adorned with a bumper sticker that reads GENITITURERS SODOMIZED MY HONOR STUDENT. In the nearby bathroom, male visitors can appraise a framed lithograph of Pink Floyd's The Wall while they stand serenading the commode.

Slumped in his studio, Reznor is wearing jeans and a black Fuct T-shirt, its illustration a Jaws parody: a huge naked woman swooping up to snag a teeny Great White. ("It's laundry day," he explains.) He's more relaxed than he was at out first meeting the previous day in his kitchen, when he shyly met my glance from the corner of his eye. Occasionally, he throws his head back and laughs wickedly at his eyes merry black slits. His voice is deeper than you might imagine with a slight rural twang. With his ebony-dyed hair and black boots, he could be some smart, metal-listening, comix-reading dude pumping gas on a Pennsylvania Interstate.

Here in his hermit's cell, Reznor is surrounded by ghosts. It was here that Reznor returned after the hubbub from the Downward Spiraltour died down. It was here that Reznor, who had achieved everything a rural-Pennsylvania-raised Kiss fan could want-a central role in Woodstock '94, an obscenity-strewn hit ("Closer") in the Top 10, the wrath of conservative activist C. DeLores Tucker-found himself unpsyched to be a rock star.

"It didn't work," Reznor says softly. "I could pretend I fit into that role onstage every night-the antics and nonsense. But alone I had kick of a bottoming out. I was losing friends; I had the woman who raised me die. Nothing seemed to matter. The last thing I wanted to do was write an album."

In 1997, when Reznor began The Fragile, he'd lost his grandmother, a pillar support who'd raised him since age five. He'd Svengali-ed his close friend Marilyn Manson onto the pop charts with Antichrist Superstar, only to get jealously dissed by him soon after. He was alone, vaguely ashamed, and, as he quickly discovered, unable to work. "I just didn't want to sit down with a notebook and see what was in there," he says. "I didn't want to uncap the fuckin' cauldron and see what came out."

While many modern classics concern writer's clock-Sunset Boulevard, The Shining, Barton Fink, all of which Reznor has seen-the raven-haired musician seems more Edgar Allen Poe than Stephen King. Even now, there's a little Fall of the House of Usher about him-an obsessive soul alone in his mansion; he's also driven insane by overacute senses. "I'm pretty sensitive to smells," Reznor says. "I pay attention to sounds all the time." He points at a bank of computers. "You've got ten whirring hard drives right there. At one point, I realized I'd been hearing it for six months. What has it obscured? What had I missed? As soon as I tuned into it, it drove me crazy."

Several years ago, Reznor accepted that he was emotionally compromised. He tried psychiatry (pity the shrink who landed the Reznor file), but found it unsuccessful. He flirted with Effexor and Paxil but discovered, perhaps predictably, that the antidepressants and Nine Inch Nails don't mix. "I was in an abnormally positive mood all the time," he says. "Everything was, like [he affects a mellow Marin County vibe], 'It's okay. We'll get to that. Whatever.' Part of what drives my personality got removed."

In late '97, Reznor decided to combat his chemical imbalance by throwing himself into recording The Fragile. He took the novelist's traditional approach of moving to the country and writing, dammit. He got a cozy little chalet in one of the most gorgeous setting in North America: California's Big Sur, with its spectacular cliffs and sweeping views of the Pacific. One can't imagine a more placid, inspiring locale to spend some creative time.

"That was terrifying," Reznor says. "I hate thinking about it, to be honest with you. Everyone was saying, 'Oh, there's a magical quality there.' Well there was, but it wasn't the kind of magic I was looking for. It was an evil, a darkness." It must have been: Reznor says most of the songs he wrote there sounded "like something off Billy Joel's The Stranger."

When he returned to New Orleans, Reznor decided to just start putting some of the "moldy, decaying" sounds in his head on tape. "It was like an impressionist thing," Reznor says. "Trying to paint a picture." But soon he and producer Moulder realized that this process of sonic self-portraiture was providing gnarled, fascinating music. "I wanted to make something that mattered, that wasn't easily dismissible," Reznor says. "Something that was accessible and could still challenge people."

While the classically trained pianist namechecks Debussy as an influence (the composer'sLa Mer is also a song title on The Fragile), rock classics like the "White Album" and David Bowie'sLow also proved crucial touchstones. "Those records seemed to shatter this mold of what a pop song has to do," Reznor says. "Instead of just verse-chorus-verse, you could use weird structures. We were like, 'Let's go for it, let's just let it be a Queen-style, let's make it more cinematic or theatrical.'"

Reznor and Moulder found themselves-two years and countless obsessive-compulsive digressions later-with so many songs they needed help whittling them down. They recruited Bob Ezrin, a producer of Reznor's all time favorite rock bombast, The Wall. With Ezrin's help, Reznor realized that the story of The Fragile was essentially an autobiographical roman clef. "Without having to construct a story in my head, it was all there," he says excitedly. "I just had to open my notebook, turn the recorders on, and start." This discovery engendered newfound confidence, apparent in lines like "I won't let you fall apart," "I won't crack," and "I will keep on." In fact, one of the most striking things aboutThe Fragile is that, while they're sung through gritted teeth, these are some of the most optimistic lyrics in Reznor's career.

"It was, like, all right, I've got some shit in the arsenal now," Reznor says, recalling the momentum that took him through the CD's rocking "right-side." The arsenal was perhaps best utilized for the scathing "Star Fuckers, Inc.," which almost explicitly attacks a certain ghoul-contact-lens-wearing, cross-dressing Rose McGowan-dating former friend. While Reznor is tight-lipped about their falling out, his fun, machine-driven version of John Lennon's McCartney kiss-off, "How Can You Sleep," makes it pretty clear how he feels.

"There was an element of thuggery that we wanted to keep in," Reznor says of the song. "There was a sense of humor though the whole tying. We were laughing when we were doing it, like, this riff is totally ridiculous. We took the crowd noise from Frampton Comes Al." He laughs. "Oh, I shouldn't say where we got that from."

In some ways, The Fragile is less idiosyncratic that Reznor might suppose, touching on mainstream cultural anxieties. Its crisis of emptiness amid success may come from an unusual situation-rock-star ennui-but its central themes run throughout the frozen suburbanites of the film American Beauty and through the brawling yuppie masochists of Fight Club, which was directed by sometime collaborator David Fincher. That film, in fact, was even based on a book by a Nine Inch Nails fan.

"I listened to The Downward Spiraland Pretty Hate Machine constantly while I was writing Fight Club," says author Chuck Palahnuik. "There were cuts on it that I would put on repeat to the point that my housemates were just insane. 'Hurt' was one of the big ones." The lyric "I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel" might as well be one of the novel's mantras.

"I am still a human being, living in the same world as everybody else," Reznor says. "I've had fantastic experiences, I've been in bizarre situations, but I grew up with the same ideals. I got what I wanted. It wasn't what I thought it would be. It put more stuff around me, but it didn't fit what was inside. I had to find out what might fix that up."

In Reznor's case, it happened to be making a record. Partially as art, partially as therapy, he embraced the discipline of pop, which might have proved a nauseatingly "uplifting" Behind the Music vignette ofThe Fragile weren't so violent and disquieting. Despite the crassness of the music world right now, despite the fact that he could "easily name 20 bands that [he wants] to fight right now because they suck so bad," Reznor still finds pop music a mission.

"It's real easy to make noise that's pretentious and baffle people with obliqueness," he says. "It would be easy to say: You know, fuck it. I'm making what feels good to me, and I'll just stream it over the Internet real-time-find it if you want."

"But it's less challenging then," he continues. "Because it's really, really hard to make something accessible that's also intelligent. It's even harder now that it was five years ago."

He leans forward at the command console, takes a sip of Diet Coke. "But really, he says intently, "you should rise to that challenge, you know? Instead of just sitting back and bitching about everything. Things havechanged. Attention spans have shortened. The record business, with mergers and everything, is a less artistically free place to make music. But I don't think that an artist's response should be" Okay, white flag, forget it. I mean, let's change it back."

Transcribed for The NIN Hotline by Crimsonplague.

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