Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile

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Album Review by Mark Bayross

It’s been five years since Nine Inch Nails released an album, although Trent Reznor can hardly be accused of sitting on his arse — amongst other things, he produced two major film soundtracks, both with new NIN songs, wrote music for a computer game, released a remix album, played Woodstock ‘94 covered in mud and found the time to produce Marilyn Manson’s groundbreaking “Antichrist Superstar”.

A year ago, Trent said in an interview that the next NIN album would be very different, very mellow. No-one really believed him, myself included — this was Trent Reznor, the snarling, screaming rock animal who made MARCH OF THE PIGS and HAPPINESS IN SLAVERY. But he is also the man who wrote SOMETHING I CAN NEVER HAVE and HURT and it is this part of his complex make-up that shines though here — like a wounded soldier after a battle — melancholic, contemplative.., fragile.

The most striking thing about the album, apart from its length (it clocks in at around an hour and 40 minutes), is the relative lack of electronics. The mechanised mayhem of old has been replaced by a more organic sound: acoustic guitars strum, drums thump, and feedback ebbs and flows through the speakers. Trent has also taken to using more instruments, letting violins, cellos, pianos and even a ukulele run amok through the mix, while he has drafted in help from the likes of ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and even rapper/producer Dr Dre.

The resulting sounds are nothing if not eclectic: some tracks have a haunting free-form quality which at times is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or late, experimental Talk Talk, and at times could almost be described as (dare I say it) “jazz”. The dark, smoky atmosphere hints that Trent’s work on the LOST HIGHWAY soundtrack has had more of an influence on him than expected. By the time we arrive at the final track, “Ripe (With Decay)”, we are in Scorn-style isolationist territory. However, Trent’s genius is that he effortlessly blends this unpredictability with straightforward rock: most of the time, the music seems like a cross between Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins and Stabbing Westward.

If all this sounds horrifyingly tame, you need not worry. We are talking about Nine Inch Nails here. This album packs as much punch as any of his previous efforts: from the opening SOMEWHAT DAMAGED, though THE WRETCHED, to the hardcore stompathon STARFUCKERS, INC., Trent shows that he has lost none of his ass-kicking ability.

So, Mr Reznor confounds expectations yet again. Emerging from the fog of anticipation, he has produced an ambitious and innovative work of epic proportions, moving from gentle ambience, through feedback-drenched psychedelia, to melodically heavy walls-of-sound. Compare and contrast the Manson-esque STARFUCKERS, INC. with its crunching guitars, thug-choir chorus and vicious anti-groupie lyrics (“a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene”), with the haunting, beautiful LA MER, where swathes of strings are tickled by tingling piano.

I have listened to this album non-stop since I bought it a week ago, and yet I still don’t feel like I have heard it enough to fully appreciate it. There is just so much here, so many sounds and textures, so many twists and turns, that I have yet to give it the space it needs to really grow on me. It is Nine Inch Nails, but there is no instant classic tightly-wound HEAD LIKE A HOLE or WISH here. It is just a highly original, varied, powerful, long piece of work by a man who, now in his thirties, is becoming one of the truly great musicians of our time.

5 stars