Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Fragile’ Is Twice as Good When It’s Half as Long
Released on September 21, 1999, The Fragile had the difficult task of following up Nine Inch Nails’ breakthrough album The Downward Spiral, which had been both a commercial and critical success. But the pressure to come up with material that could match or exceed what he’d done with that record wasn’t the only thing weighing on Trent Reznor as he entered the studio in 1997. With the death of the grandmother who raised him, Reznor plummeted into a pattern of self-destruction and self-indulgence.
The result is a bloated mess that is just screaming to be edited. It might seem fitting for an album that both documented and was fueled by substance abuse to be excessive, but that doesn’t make The Fragile’s almost two hours (1:03:39) any more listenable — at least not in one sitting. The album’s two-disc structure implies that there’s meaning and thought put into its sequencing, but it’s barely discernible, and whatever themes do get fleshed out are undermined by the many songs that just don’t fit. Yet, beyond the record’s bleak, unrelenting surface, there are glimmers of a painstakingly produced, lush and thematically sound album. I get a little queasy simply reading biography into this record, and that becomes less necessary if you focus on the songs that are thematically linked and Trim the Fat.
“THE DAY THE WORLD WENT AWAY”
Though the song is melodically sound, it also sounds a bit tossed off and unfinished. The quiet-loud structure drags it into rock cliché territory, and the most repeated and emphasized lyric is not even a word. For such an important part of the song, the “nah-nah” melody that brings it to the finale feels like filler, like a scratch lyric that was never substituted with something more meaningful.
This song mostly exists as a nice bridge into the next, “The Wretched,” and live, the two songs are often performed back-to-back. Which begs the question why they were ever separated in the first place. The strongest part of “The Frail” is its piano-driven melody, which is actually revisited in the guitar solo on “The Fragile,” making this song’s presence feel extra superfluous.
“JUST LIKE YOU IMAGINED”
This song and “La Mer” are by far the best instrumental tracks on the record, and it’s absolutely killer when played live. But on an album full of instrumentals, we have to be ruthless. Besides sounding awesome, and featuring great performances from both Mike Garson and Adrian Belew, it really doesn’t add anything to the record or its themes.
Sounding like the fanfare that would play before an Amanda Palmer concert, or '90s video game music, this song might’ve worked had the album been consistently weirder. While most of the intentionally “flawed” sounds Reznor worked into the record are used to elevate the material, this one just seems weighed down by those choices. With the 2017 re-release of the album, Reznor even tried to fix the song, and offered up a significantly remixed version of it.
“NO, YOU DON'T”
Pairing Reznor’s snotty vocal delivery with unbelievably heavy guitar charges is usually a winning combination, but though this song has plenty of bite, there’s not really much here to chew on. Like “Starfuckers, Inc.,” “No, You Don’t”’s lyrics are blunt and to the point, but sound a little too overt when juxtaposed with the record’s more lyrically dense songs
This song feels like a sketch of what we eventually hear on “Into the Void.” All of the instrumentals on The Fragile make it seem as though Reznor fell in love with the idea of reprising a song’s melody elsewhere on a record (à la the Beatles, Metallica and Prince), so he decided to do it with every fucking song.
“WHERE IS EVERYBODY?”
One groovy, dirty bassline, warped guitars and quasi-rapped lyrics make this song a stylistic win, but the lyrics tank it. Though the titular chorus manages to express feelings of loneliness and isolation via a single question, striving for simplicity on a record that otherwise goes for broke in the way of dense, complex arrangements only comes off as facile. He does a better job elsewhere of suggesting he's alone and facing loss (like on "The Great Below") without spelling it out so explicitly.
“THE MARK HAS BEEN MADE”
More than the other instrumentals, this song’s moodiness really anticipates Reznor’s later work scoring films like The Social Network, and it even later appeared in Denzel Washington revenge epic Man on Fire, but at five minutes, it feels more than a little self-indulgent. You’d think a song with this title would be a bit more focused on leaving an impression.
What seems to be a direct attempt to recapitulate the success of single and non-album track “The Perfect Drug” feels supremely out of place on The Fragile, regardless of what disc you try to shoehorn it in on. Shallowness is invoked in the song’s lyrics as a kind of criticism of the song’s subject, which really doesn't work in harmony with the rest of the record’s addiction metaphors, often symbolized by deep endless voids or drowning imagery.
Another cool instrumental that seems more fitting for a movie trailer than having a place on this record.
“RIPE WITH DECAY”
This one’s eerie, but mostly a non-starter that’s nearly seven minutes long.
One hell of an album opener. It burns with an intense sense of betrayal, but takes its time and really builds toward its anger and fury. Beginning with a spare acoustic guitar riff and drum kick, more and more instruments slowly join in over the song’s ¾ time signature, until it builds into a fuming, unholy fire, making “Somewhat” seem like an understatement.
The verses begin with muffled vocals, sung over an insistent beat, a perverted Talk Talk piano line and dot matrix printer sounds until Reznor’s guitar ratchets up the intensity for a grating chorus, punctuated by actual screams. It sounds like he’s swinging above the seventh circle of hell.
“WE'RE IN THIS TOGETHER”
This is seven minutes of pure abrasion. The black hole beats open up and swallow everything whole, except for the wah-ed out guitars which have a weighty gravity all their own. They just sound so big. The song’s heart-on-sleeve and completely earnest lyrics are pretty cheesy, but sold convincingly via the explosive, anthemic chorus.
Like “We’re in This Together,” this song is almost eye-rollingly earnest, but it works because of how off-kilter the parts are beyond its huge chorus. Originally opening with a buzzing bassline and kick drum, the understated drum part is complemented by sounds of plucked strings that sound out of tune, which work as added percussive elements and are like a sonic manifestation of the breaking down of the song (and its subject) that the lyrics are trying so desperately to prevent.
It begins with an ambient intro that sounds submerged, like a sonar or underwater respirator. Those meandering ambient synths are quickly at odds with the song’s skittering drum beat, creating a great sense of tension even before Reznor sings a word. It sounds both uneasy and at ease. Lyrically, there are callbacks to the album opener’s “damaged” metaphor, which get connected to the greater album theme of drowning. It’s worth noting that Reznor deploys his trusted “nah-nah” lyrics again, but rather than bearing the melodic weight of an entire song like they do on “The Day the World Went Away,” here they serve as backup vocals that run a nice counter-melody to Reznor’s main vocal. The song is capped off with a coda of woozy strings and nearly imperceptible lyrics, which help to signal the distance referenced in the song title and chorus.
“THE GREAT BELOW”
Like “Even Deeper,” the music and lyrics pair incredibly well to create a strong visual for this song. The strings dart about like waves crashing against the shore, then swell into something so grand and so arresting. Structurally, there’s no proper “chorus” here — just a slow build letting the weight of the song really connect.
“THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH”
As the first track on the second CD of this release, “The Way Out Is Through” is a key shift in the narrative of the record. It’s mostly an instrumental before the song reaches its climax, as if Reznor needed the time to think of what to sing. The pause creates tension so that when he finally does sing, it feels like an “ah-ha” moment of realization. Its few words anticipate the penultimate track, “Underneath It All.”
“INTO THE VOID”
This is one of the few songs on The Fragile that’s even remotely danceable, which is surprising given how popular “Closer” was. Beyond its immediacy and undeniable hook, “Into the Void” continues where “The Way Out Is Through” leaves off: with the central character of the album making an active choice to come to terms with their inner demons, even though the task is difficult, even to the point of being Sisyphean.
It sounds like one of the most straightforward songs on the record, but look a little closer and there’s a great deal of detail in this seemingly simple song. The themes of an internal void, of insatiability, of want or desire unfulfilled are reaffirmed here. If you can, get your hands on “Please + Appendage,” which appears in the special edition and originally appeared on the vinyl pressing of the album, and gives the song a little more room to breathe.
“I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO JOINING YOU FINALLY”
A serene, contemplative song, and one of the most minimalist on the entire album. There’s a great deal of restraint being exercised here, perhaps to enhance the shock of the two tracks that follow. There are echoes of “No, You Don’t” in the vocal melody, but a bit creepier and sinister and less over the top.
“THE BIG COME DOWN”
What’s not to love about this industrial-sized funk stomp? There’s no reason for this song to be buried as the third-to-last song on the second disc of this album. Instrumentally, it’s one of the weirder songs on the record, but all of the disparate parts come together really well. The drums sound like appliance doors slamming shut, while the guitars sound like sirens powered by vacuum cleaners. It’s maybe the weirdest song Reznor has ever written, and most definitely the best example of his post-Downward Spiral maximalism.
“UNDERNEATH IT ALL”
Building on the junkyard cacophony of the previous track, “Underneath It All”’s surging drum beat has an industrial quality to it, like a machine overloading, panicking. Though they share vocal melodies and lyrics, it acts as a kind of stark counterpoint to “The Great Below.”
FINAL RUN TIME: 56:36