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Dreading the idea of yet another brat-infested Halloween? Despising those Mounds-wired trick-or-treaters swathed in Pokemon crap, swarming your home like ants on a turkey carcass? Well, cut the moying, kill the floodlights, and direct those bulky Sony speakers out the big bay window: Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor has created the perfect soundtrack to keep those cavity-ridden kiddies off your lawn.
The Fragile, Reznor’s first full-length effort since 1994’s big-selling The Downward Spiral, is a two-CD, 23-track nightmare crammed with 104 minutes of tortured screams, hellhound growls, and demonized distorted guitars. (Creepy bonus: It was recorded in a former funeral home in New Orleans.) Trust me: After you saturate the neighborhood with a prolonged blast of this audio bummer, not even the Bible-thumpers living next to the Thompsons will talk to you again (although you might get a few of those creepy goth punks buzzing around the pumpkin—but what the hell, they never eat much candy anyway).
Spot a couple of the more brazen chocolate-grubbers making a mad dash for your door during one of The Fragile’s six lush instrumentals? No problem: Hit ’em with a shot of “Starfuckers, Inc.,” an ear-popping, supersonic put-down of Reznor’s onetime pal Marilyn Manson—not to mention a spaz-out fun club cut. (Parental advisory: Unless you want the fuzz showing up on your doorstep, kill the volume during “Starfuckers”‘ harsher slams, such as “[W]hen I suck you off not a drop will go to waste/It’s really not so bad you know once you get past the taste, yeah.”)
So buy The Fragile, and prepare for a witching season the cul-de-sac will never forget! (Coming this Christmas: Korn’s “Killer Drummer Boy.” Those carolers will never see it coming.)
Perhaps I’m the wrong guy to be spouting off about Reznor’s ambitious new journal entry: Ever since Nine Inch Nails’ auspicious 1989 debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, not once have I bought into the musician’s doom-and-gloom sentiment and his what’s-the-use? philosophizing. Yeah, yeah, yeah: You’re young, you’re angry, you’re talented, you’re rich. Cry me a fucking river. Reznor is really just a musical himbo: nothing but blah-blah-blah spilling out of his mouth, but, my, doesn’t he sound gorgeous. A song like the ’94 hit “Closer” (“I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside”) is timelessly chic not because of the attempt at raw sexual honesty and aggression, but because of the tune’s over-the-top instrumental climax, a randy aural waterfall of industrial-strength steam blasts, throaty, garbled pillow talk, tattered guitar snorts, Michael Myers-is-after-me keyboard pounding, and PlaySkool piano doodling that signals postcoital gulps of air. Trent Reznor’s woe-is-me bullshit sounds so good you just gotta listen.
Speaking of masked psycho Myers: It’s inevitable that Reznor, 34, and horror-movie director John Carpenter, who scores most of his own work, be it Halloween or The Fog, will someday hook up for a project. (Reznor has worked on the soundtracks for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.) Frighteners Reznor and Carpenter both build their most haunting music with simplistic, ominous keyboard lines that poke and pick and scratch until you just can’t take it anymore. Listen to the theme from Halloween—is there creepier horror-movie music? OK, maybe The Exorcist’s “Tubular Bells”—then watch how Reznor builds The Fragile’s opening cut, “Somewhat Damaged”: innocent string plucking, then hard military beat, then a woman being sawed in half, then light, creepy synth shuffle, then the guttural hook: a machine-gun-heavy keyboard that only the undead could dance to. And then the screaming. So much screaming.
And there you have it: The album is not even two minutes old, and already Reznor has revealed the card up his sleeve: This is how I build, this is how I scare, this is how I rock. The NIN creator’s goal has always been to keep the listener off-balance—soft then hard, whispering then howling, lovely then gruesome—and he maintains this upper hand not with his sad, fuzzy lyrics, but with a well of sounds, endless production layers, and a rare ability to craft noises both beautiful and beastly out of what should be puddles of sonic mush.
Whereas the single-disc Downward Spiral maintained a suicidal, self-flagellating spirit for its 65-minute duration, The Fragile is far too long for Reznor to keep every ray of sunshine out. Exotic tendrils of hope sprout through the shit-caked earth on several songs—and these turn out to be the album’s best tracks. When you’re in the shower and you’re washing behind your ears—and the stereo is cranking in the next room—”We’re in This Together” sounds very much like a firebombed “Jack and Diane.” Reznor may “Awake to the sound as they peel apart the skin”—his preferred alarm clock, we are to believe—but he also adds, with more pure emotion than he’s ever revealed, “You and me/We’re in this together now/None of them can stop us now/We will make it through somehow/You and me.” First single “The Day the World Went Away” offers up some poppy, nihilistic “Na na nah”s among doomsday lines such as “I’d listen to the words he’d say/But in his voice I heard decay/The plastic face forced to portray/All the insides left cold and gray.” And rave-ups “No, You Don’t” and “Starfuckers, Inc.” prove that closeted disco-boy Reznor will always have a place in his moldy heart for the club kids.
Reznor prefaced the release of The Fragile by saying that the album’s dual examinations of betrayal and loss were inspired by his destructive (and ultimately destroyed) friendship with Marilyn Manson and the death of his grandmother, respectively. Whatever: Reznor’s vague brooding here is no different from that of his previous albums. (Life blows. We know.) Much like its cinematic equivalent, The Matrix, The Fragile is loaded with wild, wonderful effects—and it certainly has a high cool quotient—but the effort is not nearly as deep as it wants to be. The album is also an exhaustive journey to undertake in one sitting, especially because of the lack of significant landmarks (hooks, singles, scream-along lyrics, etc.). Nevertheless, The Fragile is unlike anything this musician (or most musicians, for that matter) has tackled. It’s admirable and entertaining, and what it lacks in pop sensibilities it makes up for in effort and imagination. In Reznor’s spoiling meat-sack of a universe, life is a painful ride at best—but damn if it doesn’t sound wonderful. CP