Playing God
Nine Inch Nails: The Fragile

it’s hard to believe (or perhaps not when one considers the source), but before With Teeth hit stores early this month, it had been almost six years since Nine Inch Nails released a new studio album. Upon its release in 1999, critical reception of The Fragile varied wildly, invoking conflicting responses from reviewers everywhere. As with almost all double albums, many claimed that it was simply too overreaching and contained too much excess fat. Then again, Spin heralded it as the album of the year. More important for this particular piece, I heralded it as the album of the year way back when. Why? Well for starters, I was fifteen.

I’ve since opened myself up to the disdainful indictments coming from those who were appalled that this was the best Trent Reznor could come up with in the five years following The Downward Spiral. Simply put, Reznor’s lyrics don’t seem quite so absurd when you’re an adolescent. (I actually used to like the second person sludge that is “The Wretched.”)

In terms of the album’s exorbitance, I still like the majority of its material in one way or another. The Fragile’s biggest flaw is that it comes staggering to the finish line on the second disc—I’ve eliminated its final six songs. The instrumental tracks that I fancied myself sophisticated for liking years ago are now my favorite moments from the album (which may now be a poor reflection of my musical intellect). Cutting The Fragile almost in half spares the listener from many of its most taxing moments, and, for better or worse, leaves behind a pretty good Nine Inch Nails album.

01. “The Way Out Is Through” (disc two, track one)
The largely instrumental opener of the album’s second disc serves as an interesting beginning. Instead of blowing the listener away with static-infused guitars, a pounding drum machine, and a massive dose of teen angst, “The Way Out Is Through” eases in gently for three minutes before Reznor starts screaming his head off as everyone rightly assumed he would.

02. “The Fragile” (disc one, track six)
When this song was performed at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, I was utterly floored. While “The Fragile” has lost almost all of its appeal for me, it still builds to a pretty decent climax, and I couldn’t imagine the album without it.

03. “Pilgrimage” (disc one, track nine)
“The Fragile,” with the extended repetitions of the chorus, turns into a near march by the end. And “Pilgrimage,” the loudest instrumental on the album, is downright militant, so this sequencing seems natural.

04. “The Day the World Went Away” (disc one, track two)
The walls of guitars that dominate this song were a refreshing revelation to me in 1999, which only shows just how much of a neophyte I really was. Everything about this song smacks of unoriginality in some way, from the loud/soft/loud structure to the apocalyptic lyrics, but “The Day the World Went Away” is important when boiling The Fragile down to its essence; it’s one of its signature tracks.

05. “The Frail” (disc one, track three)
If there’s one thing Trent Reznor is good at doing, it’s writing delicate little piano lines hell-bent on making his listeners feel as helpless and depressed as he is (see: the end of “Closer”). “The Frail” was placed behind “The Day the World Went Away” on The Fragile’s original sequencing, and the two worked well together, as “The Frail” was an excellent segue piece.

06. “Into the Void” (disc two, track two)
Of all the songs from the album that enjoyed significant airplay, I feel that “Into the Void” has aged best. (Of course, nothing could have possibly aged worse than “Starfuckers, Inc.”) It doesn’t rely as heavily on an ear-shattering sonic assault to prove its point as the others, which is noteworthy since 1999 was the Golden Age of nü-metal, after all. Maybe the chorus is a little bit much (“I tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away”), but the song has a good bassline.

07. “The Mark Has Been Made” (disc two, track four)
This song sounds like it should be the void that Reznor slipped into on the previous track. One of The Fragile’s more harrowing instrumentals, its inclusion was fairly necessary.

08. “Somewhat Damaged” (disc one, track one)
The Fragile’s actual opener works better as a mid-album jolt of energy. The lyrics are downright comical, an amalgamation of Reznorisms that exemplifies exactly why people can’t stand sacrificing almost two hours of their life for an album devoted solely to one man’s misery. If you don’t like Nine Inch Nails, this song’s not for you, but I still enjoy the transition three-and-a-half minutes in that carries the song through its furious denouement.

09. “Just Like You Imagined” (disc one, track seven)
I thought The Fragile deserved to go out with a bang on its final third, and “Just Like You Imagined” is the instrumental that best segues from the suicidal apathy of “Somewhat Damaged” to the three tracks that follow.

10. “No, You Don’t” (disc one, track ten)
11. “Please” (disc two, track five)
“No, You Don’t” is a quintessential Nine Inch Nails song, and the album’s true headbanger. I’d be willing to bet that dozens, if not hundreds, of concertgoers have been sent to the hospital as a result of the violence that most certainly erupts whenever this song is played live. “Please” is another up-tempo one that recalls older material, and contains a chorus that’s surprisingly catchy.

12. “We’re In This Together” (disc one, track five)
Upon hearing The Fragile’s lead single, my reaction was essentially the same as Paul McCartney’s the first time he listened to “God Only Knows.” Honestly, I can barely stand this song anymore, but The Fragile without “We’re In This Together” is like Queens without the Bridge.

13. “La Mer” (disc one, track eleven)
This ambitiously titled piece seems like a fitting way to end my fractured version of The Fragile, as it finds Reznor somehow approaching the realm of funkiness, something I doubt anyone thought he was capable of. The song contains the same aforementioned bassline as “Into the Void,” and on the album “La Mer” comes first, but I feel like the bassline works better in a reprised role, recalling the album’s finest single, and ending things with a satisfying calmness.

By: Ross McGowan
Published on: 2005-05-23
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