Crossover popularity tends to corrupt an artist's standing as an independent creative entity: Sell too many records and you're dismissed as a cog in a giant, lucrative machine. International stardom may have devalued Trent Reznor in the eyes of some trend-watchers, but he deserves more respect than he gets. As one of the few artists to sell a million records before reaping the benefits of mainstream radio play, Reznor and his (mostly) one-man band Nine Inch Nails got where he/it is through sheer work, touring, and diligence. Having reached the point of crossover popularity with 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, what did Reznor eventually do? He released 1994's The Downward Spiral, an abrasive mortar shell of an album whose most radio-friendly song featured a bestial Reznor growling about fucking like an animal. Even Reznor was probably left trying to figure out how he became so popular: He took a risk, struck a nerve, and reaped the rewards. The Fragile comes after another five-year wait, and a lot has changed in the interim: the return of boy bands, funk-metal, the further rise of techno. So where does Nine Inch Nails fit into all of this? If there's one thing Reznor has proven by now, it's that he's got nothing left to prove. Consequently, the sheer bulk of The Fragile is an indulgence of the best kind, the product of a songwriter relieved of commercial pressure and let loose to explore his home studio. A whopping double-disc set, The Fragile—an organic, listenable, and always interesting cross between Black Sabbath and Tori Amos—somehow justifies its 104-minute length. Reznor enlisted veteran producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd's The Wall, Lou Reed's Berlin) to sequence the album, and if Reznor's woe-is-me lyrics are still depressingly one-note—it's best to just ignore them—the songs do flow together like a concept album. Sonically, The Fragile is a little less dense than The Downward Spiral, exploring a greater range of texture and dynamics while maintaining Reznor's trademark gloom. The album is marked here and there by ringers like Bowie pianist Mike Garson and guitar whiz Adrian Belew, as well as two unexpected guest boardmen, Steve Albini and Dr. Dre. But the set is clearly Reznor's vision. Disc one is the half most likely to placate old fans, but it will also confound them, seeing how intense, menacing songs such as "Somewhat Damaged" and "The Wretched" alternate with curiously somber experiments like "Just Like You Imagine" and the desperately epic "We're In This Together." The second disc is where he gets funky: "Into The Void" is an ultra-catchy nod to Depeche Mode, while "Please" looks to new wave for inspiration without necessarily aiming for nostalgia. Nothing here is quite as manic and striking as "The Perfect Drug," but that's part of The Fragile's appeal. This is an album meant to be listened to, digested, and then reassessed. It may not be the masterpiece some expected, but it is a healthy reminder that Reznor is just a man, and as such, his metallic machine music is subject to the same mercurial shifts that he experiences in life.
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