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16 Years Ago: Trent Reznor Puts Nothingness into Nine Inch Nails’ Bleak Epic ‘The Fragile’

Nine Inch Nails, 'The Fragile'
Nothing/Interscope

“I was really, really unhappy,” Trent Reznor told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1999. Speaking to Loder in early September during a segment that aired before the network’s broadcast of that year’s VMAs, Reznor addressed how he felt when it came time to begin writing what was to become Nine Inch NailsThe Fragile, which at the time was still three weeks away from release. “I was really disillusioned with a lot of things,” he said. “I didn’t trust anybody, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say musically. So I didn’t.”

Though hardly ideal for starting work on the follow-up to a smash success, Reznor’s alienation and artistic paralysis ultimately fostered an outpouring of creativity that would result in a sprawling, double-disc helping of music so dense that it’s still revealing aspects of itself even 16 years later. In a 2013 CBC radio broadcast, when asked how he coped with the quintuple-platinum success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, Reznor chuckled and answered with one word: “poorly.” But his answer, though it may have held true for his personal life, doesn’t tell the whole story. Eventually, Reznor coped by concentrating all of his energy on making The Fragile, a monument to focus under duress.

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After two years’ worth of lacerating, physically destructive performances in support of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, Reznor understandably found himself feeling depleted on several levels. But once he did manage to summon the will, he more than made up for his initial lack of drive by spending 18 hours a day in his studio (then based in New Orleans) for two years straight. So when Reznor sings “too f—-d up to care anymore” in a mechanized drone on opening track, “Somewhat Damaged,” he certainly isn’t referring to his attitude towards the music.

The Fragile clocks-in at an hour and 43 minutes, but the fact that the album was conceived as a masterwork reveals itself not only in its scale but also in the lavish attention to detail that went into its construction. While Reznor certainly emphasized texture and reached for a sense of epic grandeur on The Downward Spiral, he upped the ante on The Fragile, which captures him focusing less on traditional hooks and “songs” per se and more on sonic layering. “The writing, production, arranging and sound design all took place at the same time,” he explained in another interview from the period.

Songs like “Even Deeper,” for example — with its lengthy middle section of whispered vocals, synths that mimic a haunting orchestral passage and dobro-like slide guitar (co-mixed by Dr. Dre) — highlight how much Reznor had embraced refinement over bombast. Though he screams plenty throughout the album, most of the time, the effect is tempered by the rest of the instrumentation as well as what can only be described as adult angst. Yes, Reznor’s fixation with suicide carries over from The Downward Spiral, but he mostly forgoes provocative references to bodily harm and self-loathing in favor of a contemplative melancholy that verges on resignation. Co-producer Alan Moulder’s mixing choices also underscore the shift in mood.

For every moment where Reznor lashes out — the buzzsaw electro-punk throb of “No You Don’t” and “Starf—ers, Inc.” — there are a dozen where he simply takes stock of his own crushing sense of isolation and sits there with no outside parties to excoriate for how he feels. At the cusp of adulthood after growing up in the public eye, Reznor was clearly growing into the role of “mature artist.” Take “La Mer,” a gentle instrumental built on an out-of-tune piano that swells as it becomes increasingly misshapen by experimental sounds. Or the hip-swaying new wave funk of “Into the Void,” which makes despair sound downright sexy and transforms brooding into stylish elegance.

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Naturally, after two years of burying his nose in a recording console, Reznor found himself seeking outside help to put the final running order of the songs together. For that task, he enlisted Bob Ezrin — best known for producing Pink Floyd‘s The Wall. (According to the liner credits, Ezrin “provided final continuity and flow.”) At times, The Fragile can seem like a lot to digest, particularly in the first few sittings and especially if you try to tackle the entire album at once. But even if you’re a listener that finds it unwieldy at times, you’re likely to find sublime reward in the way the album reflects Reznor’s unwavering dedication to his craft.

With some works of art, you can see clearly within the very fabric of the work that the artist had to wrestle with the material while trying to make a masterpiece. The Fragile certainly falls into that category, and in that regard it’s almost a moot point whether Reznor “succeeded.” (If you’re among the listeners that thinks so, then welcome to double-album heaven.) Either way, in its musical variety and in the undeniable ambition that define it, The Fragile arguably contains elements that would appeal to fans of any particular NIN era. It also works as Exhibit A for why Reznor has been so effective at making music that appeals to listeners regardless of whether they can relate to his unhappiness at the time of listening. Whatever emotional state you happen to be in, the sumptuousness of The Fragile will keep your ears busy for a long, long time.

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