To put it mildly, a lot changed in the world of rock and metal in the half decade that separated the release of Nine Inch Nails’ two long-form albums in the 90s. Between 1994’s The Downward Spiral and 1999’s The Fragile, Kurt Cobain left this mortal coil, the grinning and gurning world of pop-punk emerged as a global force, and a world that once saw Primus, Ministry and White Zombie go Platinum was now worshipping at the alter of Limp Bizkit and Korn. No word of a lie, this was an era in which Kid Rock was about to shift over 11 million copies of his new album in the US. Seriously. In America, Devil Without A Cause has sold more copies than Pearl Jam’s Ten and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Kid Rock. Seriously.
Perhaps the most significant shift pertaining to Nine Inch Nails saw Trent Reznor’s former protégé Marilyn Manson become the most recognizable rock star of his generation. NIN’s ‘Closer’, with its loin-swelling, gusset-moistening ode to the world of S&M, and its surreal and trippy Mark Romance-directed video, had been replaced in the black hearts of the PVC-clad masses by religious and moral outrage, the destruction of more Bibles than a barbecue at Satan’s place, and retreading rock histrionics in the more traditional vein of KISS and Alice Cooper from the man born Brian Warner. What was Trent Reznor’s place in all of this? Trent Reznor gave not one solitary damn about the world around him because Trent Reznor was always his own island.
Listen to The Fragile right now.
While The Downward Spiral was an album that mainly traded in spiteful, nihilistic self-destruction, The Fragile was something altogether bleaker. Yup, bleaker than the album that gave you “Everyone I know goes away in the end”. Let that sink in.
To quantify that, the mood of the album felt far more morose. More melancholic. As an emotion, anger is far easier to deal with than the claustrophobic feeling of drowning in a sea of depression, narcotics and resignation, and it’s that feeling that runs through the veins of the likes of the ambient, saturnine ‘Even Deeper’, the ominous and threatening restraint shown on ‘The Wretched’, and the eerie, unsettling nature of instrumental closer ‘Ripe (With Decay)’. More personal and cathartic, there were also outpourings of grief over the death of Reznor’s grandmother on the gut-wrenching ‘The Day The World Went Away’ and ‘I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally’. Even during its most commercial moment, the jaunty electro-rock stomper ‘Into The Void’, the song’s lead hook contained the lyric “Try to save myself but myself keeps slipping away”. See? Bleak.
The Fragile also had moments of fire and fury, such as ‘Starf__kers, Inc’, but produced nothing that achieved the mainstream rock anthem status of the likes of The Downward Spiral’s ‘March Of The Pigs’. But appeasing people has never been Trent’s game, and that wasn’t The Fragile’s aim at all. As such, the success and legacy of this album is something of a hot talking point.
In terms of commercial success, The Fragile soared straight to the top of the Billboard charts to give Nine Inch Nails their first No.1, shifting almost 230,000 copies of the album in its first week (a feat made all the more impressive considering the extra cost of a buying a double-album). Yet while you will have read a million glowy pieces about Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, The Fragile is something of a black sheep in terms of general praise from all of the usual outlets, even if it is as beloved by a devoted fanbase (and anyone with fully functioning ears) as any of Reznor’s albums.
Double-albums are also harder to digest in a world that grows more ADHD with every passing year. And yet the counter argument is that the label “genius” only comes with the level of ambition and craft that it took to invoke such a wide range of emotions across the album’s stunning and varied 103 minutes.
The Fragile has also had a curious afterlife in Reznor’s live shows. It was preceded by a big-budget video for the pulsating ‘We’re In This Together’, a song that enjoyed critical and commercial success, yet has only ever featured in the NIN live set five times to date. The album’s title track was unveiled during an incredible performance flanked by industrial tube lighting – and with added cellos – at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards (introduced by Johnny Depp, no less), but wouldn’t feature in the band’s live set for another seven years. That’s not without precedent, sure, but certainly peculiar.
When you are an artist with one of the widest skill sets to ever grace music of any genre and you make the decision to put your all into a body of work, not everyone is going to be able to join you on a journey of that magnitude. If you doubt that range of skill sets or see this statement as hyperbole, take a second to note the sheer range of moods, soundscapes and textures explored on The Fragile, and consider that all but five of its 23 tracks weren’t written exclusively by Reznor. And yet, even after 18 years of intense listening, The Fragile gives back on repeated listens – a fact that has only been magnified by the expanded two-and-a-half-hour instrumental interpretation of the album, The Fragile: Deviations 1.
Challenging and rewarding in equal measure, in a career of engrossing experimentation and musical dexterity, The Fragile is the most musically impressive album by a man who can arguably be described as the most musically impressive rock musician of the past 30 years.
The Fragile can be bought here.