When I wrote my review of Nine Inch Nails' The Day The World Went Away single about 2 months ago, I was pretty dissapointed in hearing what I felt wasn't really that much of a new direction for the group. While they did a couple interesting things that I can give them credit for (the first single from a hugely anticipated album and it didn't even have a drum track). Still, I couldn't help that it was missing something, even though I didn't know what it was. I chalked it up to a combination of my anticipation being too high and was hopeful that the track was one of the weaker ones on the disc.
After spending quite a bit of time listening to the latest NIN opus The Fragile, however, I know that I failed to figure in one of the most important elements in writing the first review--myself. When Nine Inch Nails put out their last full-length album 5 years ago, I was there on opening day to buy it. Actually, I skateboarded to the local music store (several blocks away) in the cold for their midnight sale and kept bugging the guys that worked there until they sold the disc to me at 11:45pm the day before it was officially released. With it in hand, I frantically skated back home and went straight to a friends room and we listened to it from beginning to end, even though I had an early class the next day. They were my favorite group then, and I bought bootleg live shows on CD, went to see them in concert, and even had a couple t-shirts. In the time since then, though, my musical interests have changed a ton, and while people may try to tell you differently, on The Fragile Nine Inch Nails is still Nine Inch Nails.
Sonically and texturally, The Fragile is probably the most interesting album that the group has put out, simply because there's so much music on the 2CD, 23 song (and nearly 120 minute) release. For the most part, the album isn't quite as brutally heavy as past releases (but then again, I don't know if any album is heavier than NIN's Broken), and it sounds like kind of a cross reference of everything that Trent Reznor has done to this point. Through it all the listener can hear little bits incorporated from Pretty Hate Machine to the Perfect Drug single. It's like he took everything he's ever done, tossed it all in a blender and hit puree, then topped it off with a touch more experimentation. Lyrically, he still hasn't crawled out of the darkness either. Even a quick skim of the song titles (check out "Into The Void," "Underneath It All," "Ripe With Decay," and "The Wretched" if you don't believe me) makes this fact plain to see. Of course, NIN wouldn't be NIN without self-loathing, depressing lyrics (although there is a touch of hope on a couple tracks).
The two-disc offering starts off with "The Way Out Is Through," a slowly-building track that is kind of reminicsent of "The Downward Spiral" (the song, not the album) from their last full-length release. It starts out with some weird little sound effects, whispered lyrics and a muffled drumbeat before things build frantically and reach peaks in an all-out explosion of sound. The next track "Into the Void," has echoes of "Closer" in its funky beat, thick keyboard line and screamed vocals. I think I smell the next single.
The fourth track goes into a little more interesting territory, even though it's an instrumental. The beginning is built around some nice ambient noises and simple stringed instruments, as well as the gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar. At one point it breaks off into a very quiet bridge before crunching down again in a new attack of distortion. It drops off again before repeating the same loud cycle over again with a bit more emphasis. Reznor kicks a bit of breakbeats on "Starfuckers, Inc" (also featured on the The Day The World Went Away single) and it makes for probably the hardest track on the album (although not really the most innovative). The BPM is kept up on the very next track, which is a slick little instrumental called "Complication." Musically, probably the most interesting track on the first disc is the tenth track entitled "Underneath it All." It has a strange little stuttering beat and some great electronic noises that wouldn't seem out of place on an Autechre release in the beginning, but soon builds to the usual gut-churning levels. The first disc closes out with another excellent instrumental (the afformentioned "Ripe With Decay") that somehow manages to pull together stringed instruments, a piano, an acoustic guitar, and lots of foreboding noise and make it sound very cool.
The second disc opens with "Somewhat Damaged" and the first single "The Day The World Went Away" before dropping off into the minimal, piano-driven "The Frail." The closing bits of the last track then lead right into the huge, ballad-like "The Wretched." It's one of those quiet/loud tracks that blows the lid off things and beckons you to sing along. Although I'm sure it wasn't intended, this loud, sing-along chorus type of song continues with "We're In This Together" and "The Fragile." Both of the tracks start out fairly quietly, but build into arm-pumping choruses with multiple vocal parts by Reznor. This string is broken with the instrumental (besides some vocal howling) "Just Like You Imagined" and the deep-rumblings of "Even Deeper." Again taking off in other directions, the track moves along with some squirty little electronic noise, a bit of live drumming sound, and a thick, pulsing bass line. The disc closes out with two of the quieter songs on the entire release. "La Mer" is a nice, little piano-driven instrumental bit with a bass line echoed from an earlier track. It gets a little fuzzed-out towards the end, but never reaches the decible levels of earlier tracks. The album closer is the super stripped-down "The Great Below" in which Reznor sings over some very slight ambient noises and the accompaniment of stringed instruments. Eventually, it all boils down into a quiet wash before fading out.
Overall, if you like other Nine Inch Nails releases, you'll probably enjoy The Fragile. While it does go in some different directions, it still contains plenty of the Reznor of old at his thunderous best. He even shows his versatile side with some nice instrumentals (which I actually ended up liking more than most of the regular tracks) and quieter tracks that play a little more off subtlety than bash-you-in-the-face sonics. For me, it's kind of a hard release to judge. I'm not as angst-filled as I used to be when I used to dig NIN so much, but there's still a lot to like in it. The production qualities are astounding as usual and it's easy to hear that Reznor had a ball just banging around on different things for 5 years making the record. I know it made me smile just a bit when I actually saw him laughing in a recent interview. Sure I've changed, but so has he. NIN is still pretty much what you'd expect, though.