Will Hermes
September 20, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Fragile

Current Status
In Season

We gave it an A-

If ”The Downward Spiral,” was an aberration when Trent Reznor (a.k.a. Nine Inch Nails) released it five years ago, The Fragile, Reznor’s Grand Guignol return to album making, is even more of one now. It enters a world lousy with teeny-poppers and hip-hoppers who live and die by the single, and one has to wonder if a two-CD art-rock epic can command the attention of a mass audience interested more than ever in one-night stands with one-hit wonders.

It certainly deserves to. ”The Fragile” is a visceral concept piece that revolves loosely around betrayal and its aftermath (and given Reznor’s public spats with the likes of Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson, one that’s sure to be read in part as autobiography). Emotionally, it’s familiar rock territory. But while current acts turn such emotions into bathroom graffiti — see Limp Bizkit’s ”Nookie” — Reznor aspires to the art gallery.

This, however, is no millennial reinvention of form — for all its digital-era refinement, ”The Fragile” is actually kind of old-fashioned and looks to older role models like King Crimson (whose Adrian Belew again adds impressionistic guitar flavor) and NIN pal David Bowie.

Mercifully, ”Fragile”’s arty conceits are balanced with Reznor’s brutish love of rock thunder and — his secret weapon — a popsmith’s feel for hooks and melodies. The first single, ”We’re in This Together,” could be arranged convincingly by Jewel, and the bridge of the title track might have been penned by Burt Bacharach if he were trapped at his piano underwater.

The album’s only shortcoming, ironically, is the relentless scab pulling that has always been NIN’s raison d’être. By the second CD, the suicidal impulses and pleading/bleeding rhyme schemes can feel exhausting.

NIN still get a lot of mileage out of rage, though: With its Carly Simon quotes and veiled reference to Marilyn Manson, ”Starf—ers, Inc.” may be the best musical flip-off since Dylan’s ”Positively 4th Street.” And as far as misery goes, Reznor dissects it as thoroughly as any musician of his generation. If his emotional palette is limited, it remains broader than any of his metalhead peers. Right now, hard rock simply doesn’t get any smarter, harder, or more ambitious than this.

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