Nine Inch Nails The Fragile at 20
On September 21st, 1999, Nine Inch Nails released their third LP The Fragile. It was a double album following up their 1994 landmark record The Downward Spiral. It was one of the most important records of my life.
It’s important for me to paint a picture for my life at the time. I was just entering high school and didn’t get into Nine Inch Nails until around 1997. I recall watching “Hurt” as a music video at my cousins around 1995 and never getting around to figure out what band it was. Forgive me, I was 10 years old. “The Perfect Drug” was a major song for me and I loved it, but I didn’t get into the band until grade 8 when our teacher did an assignment where we would actually lip sync popular songs in front of our peers. I don’t know what subject it was exactly for. I did, “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” but he brought some students back who were in twelfth grade at this point to assist us. One of which was a kid with shoulder length dyed black hair who wore nothing but black and told me to check out “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails after realizing I was an eighth grader who was already admitting to preferring atheism. I tried to change my song for the lip sync competition but my teacher refused. I asked for Pretty Hate Machine that Christmas.
Less than a year later I was obsessed with the band and had been listening to everything I could get my hands on. Aside from a love of Oasis, most of my musical upbringing came from my parents 70s rock and my sisters 90s rock, and she didn’t listen much to Nine Inch Nails. They certainly felt from my sisters era and the fact they hadn’t released an album in a while made me pretty high in anticipation. I was already on the internet at this point and posting on message boards so finding out about unreleased Nine Inch Nails content and just keeping up with the older fans was easy for me to do. Soon, “The Day The World Went Away” hit Extreme Radio, the Detroit alternative rock radio station I could pick up on the dial. New Nine Inch Nails! It was an exciting time for my life. Even if I didn’t care that much for the song. As Strong Bad would later proclaim, na na’s replacing actual words is a bottom 10. But I really liked the second song that would be on the EP I purchased back in July of that year, called, “Starfuckers Inc.”
The next sniff of new material came at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 9th, 1999. Despite being Canadian, it was very popular at the time for people in my town to get access to an illegal DirecTV satellite feed. It was how I got all pro wrestling pay per views and was able to watch Fight Club almost every day it was on their movie rotation (a fact I should probably not mention should it one day be used against me in a court of law.) Nine Inch Nails would be introduced by some unknown actor named Johnny Depp and would play the title track “The Fragile”, which honestly sounds better live than on the album itself I would soon learn. Gone was Trent’s long hair from previous videos and replaced was a short cut not too different from my own hair at the time. I don’t know why this was important but I remember feeling closer to THIS version of the band than the band I discovered through older material.
September 21st, 1999 landed on a Tuesday, but that didn’t stop me from skipping school and heading downtown to the independently owned record shop and picking The Fragile up. It cost nearly $30 Canadian, a combination of our poor dollar and the fact it being a double album meant it cost more. That said, a lot of CDs at his time were costing close to $20 already. I was elated to get two CDs full of new Nine Inch Nails material on The Fragile, and acted like the fans who had been waiting for years for new music. Now I got it. Two times worth.
Critically, the album received high praise in basically every music magazine I could get my hands on. It also became notorious for landing number one on the Billboard Top 200 but having the biggest drop from number one in its second week. I would sometimes read people say that they expected something closer in sound to The Downward Spiral or at least Broken and didn’t get that. For my perspective, every Nine Inch Nails album sounded wildly different. Pretty Hate Machine was closer to the 80s synth music my sister made fun of (which I still to this day love with all my heart), Broken was closer to the alt metal that my sister loved (which while I love Broken, I don’t dig alt metal the way I used to), and The Downward Spiral was different entirely to those two.
The Fragile did have its similarities closer to The Downward Spiral, especially in the opening. “Mr. Self Destruct” is to this day one of my favourite Nine Inch Nails songs, and “Somewhat Damaged” felt like a sequel. It would be followed by “The Day the World Went Away” which felt like a shift change to the acoustic heaviness in Somewhat Damaged. The Frail and the Wretched felt like a tandem together, no issue with those tracks. “We’re In This Together” was the first real single with a music video, and I remember watching TRL when the video debuted. I remember the channel was usually pop videos or rap rock, and the only noticeable exceptions were We’re In This Together and Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can”, which is to this day one of my favourite songs (and karaoke staples), and being angry I only got like two minutes of the video and blamed Carson Daly for this. Afterall he was the host. I still love that video, and the song is excellent. Following this was, “The Fragile” which as I said, sounded better live than on the LP.
The next track would be a bit life altering for me. “Just Like You Imagined” is still to this day one of the most powerful instrumentals I’ve ever listened to, and one of my favourite musical compositions from Nine Inch Nails. From the first day that CD played in my discman, it ended up becoming a track I would go back to. I’ve often put the CD in just to listen to left disc track seven, and I wish I could have once heard it live. “Even Deeper” follows, which always entertained me that Dr. Dre of all people helped mix it. There’s a neat interview where Dre and Trent Reznor discuss working together and making the greatest album ever. Wish it happened. From there you get “Pilgrimage”, the third instrumental and a song I think should have never made the album. Just not strong enough and too much of a filler. “No, You Don’t” is another weak track but has a great guitar throughout. Next we get the fourth instrumental in “La Mer”, a beautiful song and one of the other highlight instrumentals. It’s finally followed by, “The Great Below” which sounds like a good finish to get you to the right disc.
The right disc begins with… an instrumental. It ends up in the camp with The Frail and Pilgrimage… except it doesn’t. At the end of the two minute mark, Trent Reznor kicks in lyrics and it earns its keep on the record. “Into the Void” was the next single with a music video, which was more about doing something fancy with camera lenses than giving you a real feel of the song. “Into the Void” is also played in Final Destination as Kerr Smith’s introduction, which made me laugh first time I saw it. This is followed by, “Where is Everybody?”, which almost sounds like Trent Reznor rapping… which is always a head shaker. At least it’s better than “Deep”, easily the worst song Nine Inch Nails has put their name to. “The Mark Has Been Made” is another instrumental and hints at the unreleased track “10 Miles High”, which I think deserved album representation over a lot of other tracks.
Next is “Please”, a track which holds up a lot better than I thought back when the album first came out. It was common for me to skip it but I really liked listening to it again. It also inspired the name of the famous Nine Inch Nails forum “Echoing the Sound.” Following this was the next single “Starfuckers Inc.” which got butchered for the music video into, “Starsuckers Inc.” and had to change the Carly Simon lyric. This song is often disliked by Nine Inch Nails fans. I still love it. It’s just dripping in vitriol and gets just close enough to cock rock in the chorus (when it was the second track from the Day the World Went Away EP, it actually used a KISS live crowd noise at the end just to solidify it’s cock rockiness) to be strong without being comedic. “Complication” is another instrumental and could have been cut. It really doesn’t fit the album at this point either.
“I’m looking forward to joining you finally” is one of my favourite songs on the record and while it never had single potential, it’s one of the most beautiful songs lyrically. Trent Reznor gets a lot of deserved criticism for simple lyrics, much of it due to him being a slave to a rhyming scheme, but this song ends up shining beyond it. “The Big Come Down” sounds like a finale despite there being two more tracks. The three minute mark is my favourite part, as the solo is just great there. “Underneath it all” is somehow more worthless than some of the instrumentals, and finally we end with, “Ripe, with Decay”, another instrumental, that clocks in at six and a half minutes to pretty much pad out the right side and justify doing a double album.
So what made The Fragile important for me? It helped me recognize the power of instrumentals. It’s not just filler tracks. Sometimes they can be the most important songs by the artist, let alone important songs on the album. It also invigorated my love of the band, and releasing a double album helped keep the band close to my heart in the upcoming years. Trent Reznor soon admitted to having a drug problem, nearly killed himself due to it, and the album was made under those influences. His next album wouldn’t be until he was clean in 2005. It was that year I finally saw them live. I missed what Nine Inch Nails for most of the 90s and only got to experience them in real time as the decade was concluding. It doesn’t surprise me that the record couldn’t hold up sales after the first week, and that the album never spawned a single quite like “Head Like a Hole” or “Closer.” And like most double albums, it could have easily been cut to just one strong record. But at the time, Nine Inch Nails fans had been waiting a long time for a new record, so a double album felt like an apology.
The importance of The Fragile was that not only did it keep me interested in Nine Inch Nails, but it kept me from falling into my own downward spiral. What downward spiral was that? In 1999, other records I purchased were Kid Rock’s “Devil Without a Cause” and Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other”. I know those CDs back to back. And I was still a fan when The Fragile came out. But The Fragile helped me realize I didn’t listen to rap rock because I loved it. I listened to it because I was young and stupid. The Fragile was me not being young and stupid. It was me appreciating beautiful music with considerable flaws; fragile but never empty. Without The Fragile, I might be reviewing an old Five Finger Death Punch album right now (sorry sister.) And that’s why it’s so important. Was it the best album of 1999? No, that’s probably Battle of Los Angeles. Did it have the best song? I would give that to, “Fast as you Can.” But it did have the best instrumental. And despite being just a cardboard case and two compact discs, it was somehow worth almost thirty dollars.
I’m looking forward to joining you finally’s best lyric is, “As black as the night can get, everything is safer now. There’s always a way to forget, once you learn to find a way how.” But I didn’t forget The Fragile. And there’s no point learning how.