On late September of 1999, under the Nine Inch Nails moniker, Trent Reznor unleashed his newest musical effort upon the world. From the steady crawl toward a hail of monolithic guitars in opener “Somewhat Damaged,” to the delicate beauty of tracks like “The Frail,” there was an artistic balance found in The Fragile that Reznor hasn’t quite recreated throughout the decade since. It’s the Gen-Y equivalent of The Wall (sorry, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), a double album fully realized in theme, sound, and presentation — both a reflection on the decade of rock music that preceded it and a solidification of Reznor’s standing as a force to be reckoned with.
While The Downward Spiral‘s rock and electronic aspects were often very clearly defined, crashing into each other as they fought for dominance from song to song, the world of The Fragile featured a much more fluid blending of the two elements. Throughout the record, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is synthetic and what is organic. And unlike the deafening assault of noise throughout its predecessor, The Fragile found just as much comfort in choosing to stay quiet, resorting to pianos and strings as often as it did guitars. There’s no doubting the intention behind this transition. After all, The Fragile is a different type of record, a sort of aftermath of the war waged within its predecessor. It is anger turned to desperation — a final exhausted battle cry before Reznor is swallowed whole.
This change in tone is not only a product of Reznor’s tendency to evolve with every album release; it is also just as much a product of its time. The 90s era of music began with an unquenchable anger, a youthful frustration with everything wrong in the world. In many of the rock records throughout the decade, there was a certain hope in the hopelessness — an anger that felt like a call to arms, an honest desire to fix what was broken. But by 1999, news of the Columbine Massacre dominated the airwaves, President Clinton was deep into the Lewinsky scandal, and the entire world was paralyzed by fear of the Y2K Bug. Nothing had changed. If anything, things had gotten worse.
Given this context, it’s fitting that Reznor, one of the few survivors of the era, finished the decade with an album that was, more than anything else, a soundtrack of exhaustion and apathy. The frustration toward various enemies (religion, sex, government) that Reznor made his name on was traded in for melancholy, introspection, and paranoia. The lyrics are much more personal than usual, narrating the despair that Reznor had at the time — he in fact was seriously meditating about killing himself the same period that he wrote the album. The record is as much a reaction to everything in the rock and cultural climate that preceded it, as it is a progression of Nine Inch Nails’ sound. The war of the ’90s had been lost on The Fragile. It’s a tragic and fitting end to a time in music we haven’t really heard from since.
There’s another aspect of the time in which the album was born that should not be overlooked. Consider the situation: an artist, backed by a major label, coming off of a wildly successful breakthrough record. A huge studio budget and virtually no deadline to create a follow-up. Reznor and co-producer Alan Moulder locked themselves in a studio for two years, surrounded by instruments, and simply created. These days, with the major labels as far down in the hole as they are, it’s hard to imagine any artist, in particular one that produces rock music, ever again being afforded the opportunity Reznor was given in the creation of the record. It’s another large contributor of what makes the record so special.
There is no doubt this long gestation period is why it’s such a leviathan of an album — a sprawling epic that somehow simultaneously and successfully also manages to have a deep sense of intimacy. Just as quickly as Reznor is surrounded by towering crescendos of noise, he’s alone again, in a place so private that even the very act of listening feels voyeuristic. By the end of its 157-minute (!) runtime, through repeating motifs and densely layered soundscapes, you’d be hard pressed not to believe Reznor relinquished his entire being to the record.
Let us take a glance at The Fragile’s album cover — designed by renowned graphic designer David Carson. In the top right corner, we see what appears to be the Nine Inch Nails logo, but most of it is obstructed from view by an unusual red sheet, if you will, that is propped up against two surfaces that appear to be walls. The symbol is blocked in such a way that it seems as if the logo is hiding. Above the red board, the album cover’s background is hard to quantify. The very top is a thin strip of white canvas, with a bit of grey beneath it that is strangely pixelated. The colours on the cover are deeply saturated to the effect that you can almost make out the texture of them if you could touch it. All of these strange elements bring up a word; mystery. Mystery is a word that can not only sum up this strange album cover, but the entire record. The Fragile was a mystery in many ways; the effect it had on Reznor, its place in the Nine Inch Nails’ discography, the vague and non-linear concept that winds itself around the songs, but most importantly, the mystery within the music itself.
So why the mixed reception upon release? It’s impossible to reflect on The Fragile without mentioning this aspect — both the critical and commercial responses to the record at the time were sharply divided. Spin Magazine christened the work as their Album Of The Year. Pitchfork Media gave it a two out of ten. And the amount of copies sold reached nowhere near the four million plus units The Downward Spiral moved after its release. It’s the inevitable problem that comes with an album so dense, in particular one that follows an act’s biggest record. It is a work that must be allowed to grow on its listener — one that may initially sound like a betrayal of the aesthetic Reznor previously established, but with time, reveals in its intricacies and song craft a vital progression of the artist’s overall sound.
It’s evident, and unfortunate, that The Fragile‘s poor sales has informed his releases since. The record’s next chronological sibling, 2005’s With Teeth, is Reznor’s simplest work yet, highlighting his pop sensibilities while completely ignoring his talent for atmosphere and sonic layering. In fact, nothing in the recent Nine Inch Nails catalogue has managed to hit the sweet spot between art rock and pop that both The Downward Spiral and The Fragile seemingly achieved with such ease. Arguably the apex of Reznor’s evolution, The Fragile is a misunderstood masterwork, equal to and in some aspects better than its predecessor, and a triumph of the electronic genre.
As many of you are more than aware, The Fragile was released on vinyl, cassette and CD with track listings, ‘cross-mixes’ and track lengths that differed with each format.
Admittedly, there have been quite a few ‘complete’ torrents of this classic album, but I thought I’d do it differently. This is something that lies somewhere between all three original formats, using the CD version as the ‘target’ template, and utilizing a number of different lossless vinyl and cassette sources.
As well as taking into the account the volume gain level between each source, I’ve retained all the original CD crossfades, as opposed to that of the vinyl and cassette editions, except for those that led to/from those points now occupied by “10 Miles High” and “The New Flesh”, for which I’ve created new crossfades that are faithful to the original mix(es).
All in all I’m pretty damned pleased with how this turned out, and although it won’t be for everybody’s taste, it should nevertheless serve as a worthy addition to anyone’s NIN collection - at least until the long-awaited definitive edition that Reznor’s been talking about finally sees the light of day.
Happy birthday, The Fragile!
I don’t know where to start nor end when I want to talk about how much this album means to me. I have such a ridiculously intense relationship with it, I can’t accurately describe my love for it in words. Nor can you accurately describe it’s beauty.
Here’s to one of the real classics.
I fucking hate it when they only say “I’m just joking!” when you get pissed off.
Then try to make you look like an idiot for getting offended.
Fuck people suck.