TheFragile.jpg

For just pennies a day, you can save a Trent Reznor from being uncomfortable on MTV. The Save the NIN fund pays for things Trent Reznors need, like extra keyboards to smash, 10-gallon drums of corn starch, and an announcer who can pronounce the name of his band without calling it "Nine Inch SNAILS."

At first I ruled against including media in these posts, because in this day and age anybody who wants to find that stuff can do so. However, I've realized that the act of choosing what's relevant can be a part of the writing process. Now, you can watch all of them, watch some of them, or ignore them completely if you have no use for them.

First, let me get something out of the way that I would have posted in Part 1 if I'd been including video then:


Watch out for the guy in the back

Pre-NIN Trent Reznor, as a part of another band. I love how everyone else looks seriously '80s, and young Trent appears to be dressed for 1997. God bless the '80s; God bless Youtube.

Witness Protection: Speaking Truth to NiNnies

I may need to take an assumed name and hide myself; learn to blend into the shadows, like a ninja. There may be no amount of preparation possible to keep me safe; I am about to write some things about The Fragile that are not entirely complimentary. NIN fans the world over will want my head to hang on their mantelpiece.

"That was the girl who dared criticized The Fragile, we caught up with her eventually. She thought she was so clever, hiding in that big pile of comic books and Tori Amos CDs, but the smell of coffee and Orbit gum gave her away. Now, you can see her head over there, next to my mint copy of the Into the Void single autographed by Trent Reznor, or at least someone who looks a lot like him. It might have been that guy from Lost, actually."

Nineteen Ninety Nine

There are a couple of general guidelines for life, some well-recognized and some less so. There's Benjamin Franklin's famous assertion that the only certainties are death and taxes, the maxim do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and the fact that you should never let Trent pick the singles.

I was ecstatic the day I saw the single The Day the World Went Away at the record store (hey, remember those?), the first single off of The Fragile, NIN's long-awaited fourth album. Finally, a new song from NIN! And a real single, off a real album, not a joke remix EP like The Perfect Drug (no offense to The Perfect Drug!) Yippie-kiyaay! Moments after listening to the song, my excitement morphed into confusion, and finally intense disappointment. Months later, when The Fragile hit the shelves, I bought it dutifully, but without much enthusiasm; my faith in NIN had been shattered. I remember lining up at my local Sam Goody to buy the album, but I was also purchasing the newly released VHS subtitled editions of the Sailor Moon movies, and I was much more excited about the anime at that time. NIN put out a hugely experimental, double CD? That's nice. I used to really like them. I'll listen to it later, Sailor Venus awaits.

SM_NIN.jpg

Am I the only one who makes this connection?

It's not that TDTWWA is a bad song; on the contrary, it's grown on me tremendously in the intervening decade. I especially like the acoustic version released as a part of the And All That Could Have Been package several years later. But it's like the Waiting for Godot of rock singles. There's nothing wrong with Waiting for Godot, it's brilliant in fact, but can you imagine taking someone to see Beckett's existentialist lament when they were expecting something more along the lines of Cats? I was expecting a Closer (which I had learned to appreciate by that point), or a Head Like a Hole, and instead I got a song that wasn't single material, but was one of those quiet pieces that you ignore on first listen, but only grow on you much later after you've tired of the catchier tracks. If you need a time machine to properly enjoy your single the day you buy it, there's something terribly, terribly wrong. It was a bait and switch of modest, but significant, proportions.

Reznor later said that he wasn't trying to commit career suicide with The Fragile, but that's pretty close to what happened. Whether it was the intention or not, singles like TDTWWA and later, We're In This Together (which was musically innovative, but possibly the whiniest, most melodramatic song NIN has ever put out) sent a clear message to the throngs of rock fans who rallied around Closer as a party anthem; This is not mainstream music. This is ARTISTIC music, do you hear me? NIN is an art band. Go away, millions of fans.


Introduced by Johnny Depp, no less

NIN performing at the 1999. MTV Video Music Awards. I don't think that this one of their better performances of this song, but I chalk that up to MTV besmirching everything it touches. I want to know what it is Robin did that was so funny it made Trent laugh in the middle of the song.

Oh, and isn't it a shame that we're ten years too early for Kanye West here? I would love to see what happened if he interrupted Nine Inch Nails instead of a willowy folk singer girl. I've seen Trent get violent with that mic stand....

Into the Void of Certainty

The highest compliment I can pay to The Fragile is that, even a decade later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. It's the only NIN album that sounds pretentious to me; I can almost hear Reznor's desperation to out-Spiral himself, prove that the novelty of The Downward Spiral was not a fluke. Tracks like The Great Below, while beautifully arranged and loaded with potential, seem to fall slightly flat, lyrically derivative and lacking the sincerity of NIN's earlier work. Throughout the album, the music is on a level above the lyrics and the vocals; the pretty, playful Into the Void, one of the album's most original compositions, is somewhat let down by Reznor's vocals-- god forbid a song on the album merely be whimsical, there needs to be some self-hatred in there! Some of the darker tracks, like No You Don't and Where is Everybody, are both depressing and forgettable; well, at least you'll forget how depressed you were.

And yet, no matter how many disparaging things I find to say about it, there are plenty of moments when it all comes together. Somewhat Damaged is a fantastic opening track; it is also dark and depressing, but the constantly building intensity is so effective that you can't help but revel in that darkness, which is what the best metal does. The primarily instrumental tracks are of course free from the lyrical malaise of the rest of the album, and they truly shine. Even when I was too disappointed with The Fragile overall to truly appreciate it on its own merits, Just Like You Imagined still struck me as one of the most beautiful pieces of music I'd ever head; I used it as the soundtrack to an animation I made during my senior year of high school. The Way Out is Through is just as evocative as the title would suggest, almost a thesis statement for the album. La Mer, largely a piano piece featuring some French lyrics by a female vocalist, is quietly mesmerizing. On a few songs, primarily the title track and Even Deeper, Reznor gives a quieter, more nuanced vocal performance that would become characteristic of later albums. The flip side of being pretentious is that, if you're aiming for high artistry, sometimes you actually reach it, and the Fragile is a long double album-- there are a lot of mediocre tracks, but there are a lot of winners too, and the winners are forces to be reckoned with. The constant presence of stringed instruments, as opposed to the mostly electronic fare of The Downward Spiral, adds a feeling of warmth to the album that hasn't been equaled on any NIN release before or since; something about it reminds you of a rainforest.


NIN learning how to play JLYI live (it's possible?)

Despite some of the band members screwing up the vocal part a little bit in rehearsal, I like this version of the song a lot.

I guess the easiest way to sum up the album is that it's massively flawed, but also massively beautiful. If it's a failure, it's only so in the sense that you have to wonder what the album would have been if Reznor had been in a better place emotionally when he made it-- The Downward Spiral casts too large a shadow on it. It really only fails in its inability to make good on immense potential. It's a sacred cow for NIN fans because that was the album that separated the men from the boys and the women from the groupies; if you stopped being a huge fan of NIN during The Fragile era, it's because you were a fair-weather fan and never understood what NIN was about musically anyway. I like to think that, even though my NIN fandom waned during that era, it's not because I didn't understand NIN. I think I understood NIN well enough to understand that the album could have been so much more.

Sales Falling Apart

Nine_Inch_Nails_-_Things_Falling_Apart_-_front.jpg

If I'm ambivalent about The Fragile even now, I've got nothing on the critical response to the album, which over time has proved to be entirely nonsensical. At the time of its release, numerous publications like USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Alternative Press, and Spin Magazine heaped lavish praise upon the album. However, when The Fragile did not sell to expectations, retroactively many music critics apparently decided that not only was it not that good, but despite what they may have said before, they never actually liked it that much in the first place. In the press about 2005's With Teeth, a lot of critics addressed it as a comeback album, as if The Fragile were a disgrace that required coming back from. Now, ten years later and in the light of NIN's recent critical success with albums like Year Zero and The Slip, suddenly everyone remembers that The Fragile was amazingly ahead of its time. Make up your goddamned minds, people.

For a while people liked to refer to The Fragile as a commercial failure, but that's a slight that I haven't heard much these days; I think in light of what's happened to the music industry in recent years, the double-platinum sales of The Fragile are looking better and better. At the time though, the fact that The Fragile sold less than expected and did not produce any radio hits on a par with Closer, or even anything close to that, seemed to signal the end of NIN as a powerful force in rock. Furthermore, the remix album Things Falling Apart was bland, as remix albums go.

And All that Could Have Been


Nine Inch Nails 'La Mer' ((Live from AATCHB))

In 2002, NIN released a live CD and DVD. At the time, the title struck me as disturbingly self-lacerating; just imagine all that could have been, if The Fragile had been better and NIN shows were still completely sold out like they were in the good old days. Actually, the title refers to a bonus track of the same name off of the Still album, which was included as a bonus with the deluxe version of AATCHB. While the live album was pretty much what you would expect, Still was a surprise. Including several new songs (primarily instrumentals) and acoustic remakes of earlier songs, the bonus disc was the star of the package. In theory, there was a six-year gap between The Fragile and 2005's With Teeth, but a lot of NIN fans didn't feel that way; Still felt like an album unto itself.


Nine Inch Nails - Gone, Still.

It also began a trend which would continue throughout the rest of NIN's existence up to the present; grandmas and grandpas saying "I like this music, who is it?" and experiencing extreme confusion when confronted with the answer.

"But this is classical." "Yes." "You're saying it's Nine Inch Nails?" "Yup." "Aren't they the group that sings those terrible dirty songs?" "Yup." "But it's classical piano." "Yeah, they're schizophrenic like that."

Personally I'm not that fond of AATCHB itself-- the lyrics suffer from Fragile-Era melodrama. But the instrumentals are great, and the acoustic version of The Becoming proves that, despite everything that should make it impossible, NIN can make heavy metal with a grand piano. I think it's safe to say that that's a rare skill.


Metal +Grand Piano: Because it was there

What are you people doing? Is this safe? Does Elton John know what you've done with his piano? That poor bastard.

Next on NIN: The Series (or whatever it is that I'm doing), the With Teeth and Year Zero eras. I was going to post the video for The Hand that Feeds to get you all revved up for With Teeth, but there's been a lot of Trent Reznor in this entry, hasn't there? Yeah, I think so too. NIN is about more than just the front man, afterall. So instead, please enjoy this totally Reznor-Free version of The Hand that Feeds.


Rick Astley vs Nine Inch Nails - The Hand That Gives You Up (BRAT Mashup)

God, I love the internet.