The last time Trent Reznor set out to shock the world, he had an easier job. It's been five years since the Nine Inch Nails auteur dropped The Downward Spiral, crunching punk and goth and Depeche Mode and God knows what else into the diary of a teenage death-disco vampire. He had a shocking sound, trampling over dance beats with machine screams fierce and funny enough to kill off the entire "industrial" genre in one stroke. But the world was a much more innocent place in 1994. You remember the carefree days of grunge – it was a time before Heaven's Gate, before Oklahoma City, before Justine Bateman's announcement that she was accepting Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Michael and Lisa Marie were just a couple of crazy kids in love. Korn was just what white people called maize. Trent has to show and prove for a more jaded world – he's a vampire version of an aging action hero, and he's getting too undead for this shit.
But The Fragile isn't the music of a man going quietly. Trent comes on like an avenging disco godfather returned for the big payback. The Fragile is his version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, a double album that vents his alienation and misery into paranoid studio hallucinations, each track crammed with overdubs until there's no breathing room. The stun-volume guitar riffs, intricate synth squeals and interlocking drum-machine patterns flow together as a two-hour bubble bath in the sewer of Trent's soul. Even beautiful moments like the piano ballad "La Mer" are full of tension; acoustic bass and an African mbira decorate the piano until a live drum kit shows up to splatter itself all over the studio walls.
There's definitely a prog-rock vibe here: The title comes by way of Yes, after all, and the sequencing was done by Bob Ezrin, who has lorded over rock-opera productions from Lou Reed, Kiss and Pink Floyd. This is the sort of album where you expect Roman numerals in the song titles and a libretto on the gatefold – clearly, Trent wants to party like it's 2112. But for all the prog textures, Reznor's saving grace is his ear for rhythm; even at his most turgid, he's got a beat. The amazing seven-minute "We're in This Together" builds from an insinuating, muted pulse into screaming beatboxes as Reznor pledges his devotion ("I won't let you fall apart") while bombs drop all around him. He doesn't have much to say about his problems — "There's no place I can hide/It feels like it keeps coming from inside," that sort of thing. But the physical vitality of the beat offers him a way out.
Now that you mention it, The Fragile does run a little long, doesn't it? But excess is Reznor's chosen shock tactic here, and what's especially shocking is how much action he packs into his digital via dolorosa. When you listen up close, you get engrossed in the buried sonic twists and turns; when you put it on loud, Reznor bangs your head with great rockers like his hilarious slap at ex-chum Marilyn Manson, a song that Rose McGowan will not be pleased to learn is called "Starfuckers Inc." Speeding up nightclubing Bowie beats a la "Dope Show" until they howl for mercy, ladling on the sarcasm and feedback, Trent shows the Korn and Limp Bizkit kids how it's done with a sense of humor. But like the rest of The Fragile, it's New Wave with its finger on the trigger. Reznor doesn't want to get "Closer" here – he wants to armor himself behind a wall of noise.