Left Disc: 9/10
Right Disc: 7/10
First, I want to say one last thing about The Downward Spiral. How about that album cover? It's beautiful on its own, a work of art, yet it also abstractly sums up the album it was created to represent...which is also a work of art.
A work of art, if you didn't get the rather blunt point I hammered again and again, that I couldn't make much sense out of when I was 12. However, as I went through middle-school, and the first three years of high school, I realized that a lot of people I admired were big fans of Nine Inch Nails. I wanted to be a fan, too, but the music just sounded like repetitive, incomprehensible noise to me. At 18 (newly minted), I was offered another chance.
On one of the last fleeting weekends of 1999 (and the 20th century, itself), a 91.1 FM KLSU DJ announced that he was going to air Nine Inch Nails' newest album, The Fragile, in its entirety. As he made this announcement, I happily realized that I was getting off of my dreary Wal-Mart job that night at the exact time that the DJ planned to spin the album.
Back in those days, unless you had the best current Internet and were extremely savvy, the only way to hear a new album was to buy a physical copy from a physical store. Now was my chance to finally get with it...for free!
The road to this was perilous. Working in a small town (non-super) Wal-Mart meant that when my work was done, I would have to "zone" my area of the store. "Zone" means to clean up and straighten all of the merchandise on all of the shelves in your section, until you're done, regardless of time. I almost failed high-school Physics because of "zoning."
Thankfully, "zoning" was light that night. I got out of the store just a few minutes after the album was supposed to begin. I lightly jogged to my car and turned on my radio...but drat!...some kind of weird cloud cover overhead was screwing with the reception. The songs were frequently pierced by white noise...as if I didn't already have enough trouble understanding what was going on in Trent Reznor's sonic world.
As I drove home along a night-fogged False River, the street and pier lights threw strangely-colored, jagged shadows among the haze. Suddenly, Reznor's voice came through my car speakers clearly. I immediately pulled over, to maintain this excellent reception. I just so happened to end up in the gravel parking lot of the fireworks stand my brother and I usually frequented, halfway set-up for the impending Christmas and Y2K festivities.
Once I put my car in park, I leaned back in my seat and shut my eyes.
The song playing was "The Great Below," and it was the perfect song to listen to at that exact moment in my life. I'd just had the largest year I'd ever had and have yet to have, and now it was coming to an end. On top of that, after having so much fun, and experiencing so many new, interesting and exciting things, I had become extremely fatalistic. I was preparing myself for a major surgery just a few days before Christmas, not sure if I was going to make it through (and blowing it hugely out of proportion in my mind). If I survived the surgery, who knew what the dreaded Y2K would bring.
And yet, I was at peace. One of the major reasons I got so much enjoyment out of that year is because I made peace with my own (in my mind impending) death early on. I had no fear and only wanted to break new ground, make awesome memories before I (presumably) bowed out. As the notes of Nine Inch Nails "The Great Below" warbled, danced, and floated up from my speakers, I had a strikingly lucid waking dream, visualizing everything that had come to pass over the past 350 or so days. The closest thing I can compare it to is that hypnotic scene in the middle of Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, where Cate Blanchett gives a voice-over on top of a quiet montage of distant happenings, except instead of Galadriel's voice narrating the action, it was Trent Reznor's. Trippy, man.
"The Great Below," is the final track on The Fragile's first disc. It has a second one. I pulled out of the empty fireworks stand parking lot after "The Great Below," as the DJ took a quick break between the discs. I only heard crackly versions of the next three or so songs, and the radio in my room couldn't pick up KLSU at all that night. Still, I enjoyed "The Great Below" enough to invest my hard-earned cash in The Fragile, so that I could hear the whole thing.
- - -As I listened to the first disc, or "Left Disc," I discovered that the songs were much better when they weren't buried under piles of static. The Fragile, to me at least, doesn't feel like one story ala The Downward Spiral. It's more a collection of like feelings. I mean "like" as in similar, not "like" as in the conversational space-filler.
The Fragile seems to offer songs about a struggling relationship, and dysfunctional relationships in general, as well as addiction and loss, though all in very abstract terms. A lot of times, though, the most volatile relationship seems to be the one Reznor has with himself. With that said, he still sounds angry and at the end of his rope at times, but he also sounds calm and contemplative at others--maybe a bit older, too (after all, he is). Reznor could get heady on The Downward Spiral, but it's a far more commonly charted course on The Fragile.
Due to this and Reznor's restless musical curiosity, The Fragile's sonic variation is quite remarkable, from the driving, violent opening track, "Somewhat Damaged," to the cinematic, quiet-to-loud dynamics of "The Day the World Went Away." Those are just the first two.
My favorite Fragile tracks come in the form of a mid-album duo. The first is "We're in This Together," which features a huge chorus, maybe the best hook Reznor ever wrote, awesome driving bass, and a verse-beat that forces your head to nod against its will. The second is the title track, which finds Reznor again exploring quiet-to-loud dynamics, hiding odd sounds even in the gentler moments. The song also features a decent amount of piano, and that particular instrument is sprinkled generously throughout The Fragile--it is, after all, the first that Reznor learned to play.
Later on, "Even Deeper" features even more classical instrumentation, with a hypnotic violin line weaving in between Reznor's musings, a buzzy guitar, and a skippy beat...yes, "skippy." The whole disc is tied together by the closing track, the previously mentioned "The Great Below," which finds Reznor softly imagining sinking beneath the waves to join his recently deceased grandmother.
The Left Disc is great work, and pulls off my favorite trick: being simultaneously an artifact of its time (1999) and timeless. There's a second disc, though, Right Disc.I missed that one on my late night drive, but it turns out I had already heard the best bits of The Fragile.
Right Disc isn't bad by any means, but compared to Left Disc, it seems more of a compendium of neat ideas Reznor couldn't work into The Fragile's first 54 minutes of music. There are certainly standout moments within songs, like the opening ambiance of "The Way Out Is Through," the cool start-stop beat of "Into the Void," or the haunting atmosphere and startling change in dynamics of "The Mark Has Been Made." It's hard to hear this second disc as anything more than a collection of cool sounds, though. The twelve tracks of Left Disc would still feel like a complete album without the Right one.
And finally, speaking of sounds...
I talked about having a hard time making musical sense of Reznor's work when I was a pre-teen. I feel like that's a problem critics have always had with Nine Inch Nails. You often see NIN lumped into "Industrial Music," but the truth of the matter is, "Unconventional Rock," is a much better description. "Unconventional" because Reznor likes making loops out of weird noises and playing his keyboards more than he does utilizing an electric guitar. Once you get past that element, his music is surprisingly accessible.
- - -Hey, I think this review is done. I can't wait to drive home from work (four hours after this lunch break) and listen to The Fragile.
1. Somewhat Damaged 4:31
2. The Day the World Went Away 4:33
3. The Frail 1:54
4. The Wretched 5:25
5. We're in This Together 7:16
6. The Fragile 4:35
7. Just Like You Imagined 3:49
8. Even Deeper 5:48
9. Pilgrimage 3:31
10. No, You Don't 3:35
11. La Mer 4:37
12. The Great Below 5:17
1. The Way Out Is Through 4:17
2. Into the Void 4:49
3. Where Is Everybody? 5:40
4. The Mark Has Been Made 5:15
5. Please 3:30
6. Starfuckers, Inc. 5:00
7. Complication 2:30
8. I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally 4:13
9. The Big Come Down 4:12
10. Underneath It All 2:46
11. Ripe (With Decay) 6:34