Trent Reznor made alt-rock’s last stand with The Fragile

Trent Reznor made alt-rock’s last stand with The Fragile

In We’re No. 1, Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Nine Inch NailsThe Fragile, which went to No. 1 on Oct. 9, 1999, where it stayed for one week.

There’s an anecdote about the making of Raging Bull, related by film critic Richard Schickel in a 2010 Vanity Fair story, illustrating the obsessive-compulsive drive that can take over when a laser-focused genius is this close to painting his masterpiece, and won’t allow any stray corner of his work to be left unattended. 

It’s late in the film’s already lengthy post-production period, and Martin Scorsese is neck-deep in overseeing sound mixing, working up to 16 hours a day in order to ensure that his tapestry of dialogue, music, and sound effects overlaps naturalistically, but that each sound is still discernible from the others. For a minor scene set in a nightclub, Scorsese labors long and hard on a line from a nothing character about ordering a glass of Cutty Sark scotch whiskey. He can’t get that “Cutty Sark” to be as intelligible as he needs it to be. Finally, producer Irwin Winkler—cognizant of the need to ship the film out for the rapidly impending première—decides that Scorsese is finished; the scene is “good enough,” he insists. But Scorsese won’t have it: “I want my name taken off the picture,” he snaps. 

Was he serious? Would he really have thrown away years of work on perhaps his most personal film to date over, of all things, Cutty Sark? Winkler, for one, believed he would. So he caved, and Scorsese got to polish off the scene to his satisfaction.

I’m not aware of a similar “line in the sand” moment involving Trent Reznor during the making of Nine Inch Nails’ 1999 epic The Fragile. But this expansive, slow-burning double record, which eschewed obvious melodrama in favor of a subtler, more creeping psychic rot, is similarly composed of countless tiny components that Reznor (with a heavy assist from co-producer Alan Moulder) ruminated on intensely for two years. It is perhaps the most breathtakingly fussed-over rock record of its era, forgoing the aggressively hummable singles of Nine Inch Nails’ previous record, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, in favor of richly detailed soundscapes that drift in and out of 23 songs over the course of nearly two hours. It’s a seamless incorporation of bedroom electronics with stadium rock, quirky instrumentation with crushing dynamics, and abstractly personal confessionals with a broadly amorphous, “one angst fits all” album concept. “I wanted this record to sound like it was falling apart,” Reznor later told Spin. “So I really went for imperfection.” And yet the so-called “imperfections” on The Fragile are executed with the precision of a born technician. Everything is in its right place, especially the stuff that initially doesn’t seem like it fits: the out-of-tune violins, the atonal piano plunks, the deconstructed dance grooves.

The Fragile is linked in my mind with Raging Bull in part because of this technical brilliance. The gut-rot of suppressed violence (whether physical or emotional) lingers in both works, but this unpredictability doesn’t carry over to how they were made. Reznor, like Scorsese, used his medium as a haven from the messiness of the outside world, and he was able to exert an uncommon amount of control over his tools. With the possible exception of Billy Corgan, no other ’90s rocker was nearly as skilled at the art of making records as Reznor. Even Corgan would’ve been outmatched trying to replicate the complexities of The Fragile, with its prog-rock overtures and classical-music pretensions. (It is very much a “composed by” record.)

And yet, for Reznor and Scorsese, what came out of this masterful control over their respective mediums were wild, rough, sickening depictions of the world that were also vital, and in their own way, beautiful. The “movements” on The Fragile—which correspond with the album’s discs, beginning with the insinuating “Somewhat Damaged” on disc one and the slithering psychodrama of “The Way Out Is Through” on disc two—point toward Reznor’s eventual career as an Oscar-winning film composer. The Fragile at its best is a cinematic album, only it tells its story through sound rather than images. (One of the album’s most literal tracks, the Marilyn Manson-dissing “Starfuckers, Inc.,” is also among the weakest.) 

The main reason I liken The Fragile to Raging Bull is that they both serve as the unofficial end points for “golden” eras that made their very existence possible. Raging Bull is considered the last great film of ’70s Hollywood cinema, an era when directors were treated as the chief authors of their movies, and were encouraged to indulge in their artsiest, most subversive tendencies. It was the last time Hollywood followed the example of European cinema, and not just because it allowed for the sex and violence that ’70s audiences loved. Directors were seen as avatars pointing the culture toward what it wanted before the culture even knew what it wanted. But after a while, the American public decided it was sick of pain, existentialism, and sour endings, and with the failure of Michael Cimino’s moody three-hour Western Heaven’s Gate (released around the same time as Raging Bull, and by the same studio), the era of empowered directors was over. 

In the case of The Fragile, the period being ushered out was the alternative era. Released in fall of 1999, The Fragile was highly anticipated, coming five long years after The Downward Spiral made Nine Inch Nails a defining band of the “Alternative Nation” generation, and Reznor one of its figurehead rock stars. Compared with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, NIN hardly seemed like a conventional rock band. Reznor’s reference points were Skinny Puppy, Prince, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Berlin-era David Bowie. But with Spiral’s breakout hit “Closer,” Reznor became the closest thing alt-rock-loving teens had to their own Jim Morrison; Eddie Vedder might’ve aped Morrison’s vocal mannerisms, but Reznor stood alone among his sullen and stardom-averse peers as a dark and dirty sex symbol.

But the music world, and particularly rock music, had changed dramatically in the time between Nine Inch Nails records. In just the two years Reznor spent making The Fragile, alt-rock essentially dried up and disappeared from the charts, with many of NIN’s contemporaries either breaking up or being weakened by younger, hungrier insurgents. If Reznor was aware of this changing of the guard—and he must have been, on some level—he chose to either ignore it or forge ahead with a last stand of sorts. If anything, The Fragile is even more disaffected than Spiral, though it’s less physical and more introspective. It’s a journey inward rather than a flailing outward.

There was another seismic shift in music that Reznor could not have foreseen having an impact on The Fragile while he was laboring over it: the rise of Napster and file-sharing on the Internet. Alternative rock was, in many respects, an extension of classic rock; bands fetishized vinyl, railed against corporations, and brought back music festivals as peaceful places for young people to commune and dream of better futures. And The Fragile came out of that: It was conceived as an album listeners would pore over, track by track, and in a specific order. (Reznor even consulted Bob Ezrin, co-producer of The Wall, for help with properly ordering the songs.) The Fragile has many clandestine corners that invite listeners to peek inside, like how the melody slowly seeps out of the noise in “The Day The World Went Away” and how the guitars rise and take over the Depeche Mode-like “Where Is Everybody?” in the song’s final third. 

The Fragile was heavy, figuratively and literally, with generous packaging and an evocative album cover designed so fans could stare at it for hours without really getting it. And it was made to be played on an expensive stereo system, or at the very least, on top-notch headphones. It was not, in other words, well served by being chopped up and surveyed in 30-second intervals between downloads. Without the proper attention, The Fragile would seem boring, formless, and highly skippable on an MP3 playlist. 

Unfortunately for Reznor, that’s pretty much how many fans received The Fragile. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, but after one week, it tumbled—not just out of the top spot, but out of the Top 10, and all the way down to No. 16, the worst second-week drop in chart history at that point. The Fragile was unseated by Creed’s Human Clay, a perfect metaphor for the changing of the guard if there ever was one. The other big sellers that year were Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and Santana’s Supernatural. The most popular rock records included Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other and Korn’s Issues. 

Given the commercial climate at the time, a concept record made by a 34-year-old man beating himself up with guilt and self-hatred spawned by the loss of his beloved grandmother could hardly be expected to fit in with fun-loving teen-pop acts and horndog meathead rap-rockers. In his pursuit of creating an immaculately arranged and studiously performed masterwork, Reznor put in so much time and effort that he aged Nine Inch Nails out of its window as a dominant commercial rock act. Nevertheless, I’d argue that The Fragile was worth the hassle, if only for how it memorializes the best aspects of a time for which it arrived too late. 

Coming up: The Beatles’ Yesterday And Today 

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