The Kansas City Star

October 1999

THIS SIDE UP : NINE INCH NAILS' 'THE FRAGILE' EXHIBITS A REFINED FORMULA

It's been five years since Nine Inch Nails' ``The Downward Spiral'' established its mastermind, Trent Reznor, as the poster boy for malicious electronic rock.

That album's death-disco hit, ``Closer,'' with its unprintable catch phrase and creepy video, was a remarkably dark point in the already gloomy grunge scene, and it made a star out of its creator.

Reznor finally has re-emerged with his third album, ``The Fragile,'' a double disc released this month that explores many of the same emotional depths as its predecessors, but with a more refined sense of modulation and restraint. It's a quixotic, challenging work that cements Reznor's reputation for sound and fury, yet also gives voice to a softer, more nuanced side of NIN.

``The Downward Spiral'' was about a life falling apart, and the new album can be viewed as its aftermath. The protagonist of ``The Fragile'' has formed a bulletproof shell of bitterness over past betrayals, yet he is now, believe it or not, clearly in love.

It would be difficult to imagine the Reznor of old uttering lyrics such as ``We will make it through somehow'' or ``She shines/In a world full of ugliness,'' but NIN has turned a corner. Although the majority of the new songs concern the familiar territory of suffering and emotional decay, there is an underlying longing and even hope to ``The Fragile'' that saves it from monotony.

Musically the album owes debts to many styles in the rock lexicon. While there is plenty of harrowing heavy metal thunder, Reznor and co-producer Alan Moulder have explored subtlety and texture much more thoroughly than in the previous two NIN albums. Cellos, marimbas, even ukuleles and a marching band weave in and out of the angry guitar/synth/drum arrangements, but Reznor and Moulder successfully keep the instrumentation from the extravagance of the silliest acts of the '70s (think ELO or Giorgio Moroder).

However, that decade's influence does indeed loom large over ``The Fragile,'' from its Led Zeppelin guitar licks to the thick buzz of the instrumental track ``Just Like You Imagined,'' which would sound perfectly at home on a vintage Yes or King Crimson LP. Reznor even includes a recognizable Kiss sample in his palette of sonic colors.

The NIN sound is based heavily in synthesizers and samplers, but ``The Fragile'' shares few common traits with the bleepy electronica of clubland. Instead Reznor and Moulder tend toward oddly deconstructed samples of low-tech instruments playing machinelike riffs, like the repeating acoustic guitar on the opening track, ``Somewhat Damaged.'' Their approach to the synthesizer is surprisingly traditional and melodic, with its roots firmly planted in the beefy Moog synthesizer lines of progressive rock and early-1980s funk.

Styles reminiscent of other artists are scattered throughout the album, but Reznor always filters them through the unique prism of NIN. The song ``We're in This Together'' employs a distinctively Kornlike riff. ``Into the Void'' and ``Where Is Everybody'' are slow-burn grooves worthy of old-school Prince or mid-period Gary Numan. The mood and sound of Depeche Mode inform almost every track in some fashion.

``The Fragile'' is a Nine Inch Nails record in every way, novel yet instantly familiar. It is an album that will bear repeated listenings, offering up new insights and relationships for some time to come. If the lyrics are somewhat redundant and rhymes are occasionally forced (``Watching fate as it flows/Down the path we have chose''), the album's forte remains its dynamic ebb and flow.

Reznor's grimy marriage of rock, pop, funk and electronics is more than mere pastiche; it is a personal aesthetic that he has realized more fully with every album. ``The Fragile'' is a vital and cohesive statement, and it was worth the five-year wait.

By DEREK DONOVAN

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