It would be hard to overestimate the influence of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, an epochal creation, both culturally and commercially. Yet for all the nihilistic digi-rock spawn of Trent Reznor’s Nine-Inch Nails ever since, none has found the measure of that album’s resonant mix of rumination and aggression. At this point, expectations are impossibly high for the long-gestating follow-up.
But with The Fragile, Reznor hasn’t met the challenge so much as exploded it with a grandly ambitious 23-song, two-disc set-one that manages to echo David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station,’ classic Pink Floyd, and My Bloody Valentine within a very personal aural universe.
There are cracks in the code here: The acutely stated angst of Reznor’s lyrical voice has little of the manifold abstraction of his music, and a pile-driving item like ‘Starf*ckers Inc.’ seems like filler compared with the sophistication of the title track or the symphonic instrumentals ‘Just Like You Imagined’ and ‘La Mer.’
At root, Reznor is a sensualist, a conjurer; the ghost in his machines sings a siren song of dark, decadent beauty, proffering les fleurs du mal in sound. Whether or not it replicates previous successes, The Fragile represents forward motion, a new couplet in Reznor’s poetry of noise.