Remember Nine Inch Nails? The group that helped launch Lollapalooza? That rolled in the mud and smashed stuff up at Woodstock '94? That got name-checked on an Eminem single?
Well, that's understandable. Trent Reznor, a.k.a. NIN, released The Downward Spiral five years ago a lifetime-plus in the high-speed datastream of modern rock. The record was an achievement: an exquisitely sculpted, perfectly paced work of postindustrial self-loathing that spawned ''Closer,'' a Tipper Gore-baiting bit of cyberfunk that had kids in suburban discos coast to coast announcing their ambition to do it like the animals.
Yet if The Downward Spiral was an aberration then, 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.
He starts with the album packaging, swapping Russell Mills' feculent Downward Spiral canvases for the moody digital abstractions of Ray Gun magazine savant David Carson. The attention to detail continues inside, where Reznor pits acoustic guitar, piano, and his unhinged voice against cybernetic drum corps and howling armadas of electric noise. These man-vs.-machine standoffs can be breathtaking; most bear the imprint of coproducer Alan Moulder, whose work on My Bloody Valentine's gnarly guitar vistas showed him to be rock's most distinctive studio scientist since Brian Eno.
The Fragile, however, is no millennial reinvention of form for all its digital-era refinement, it's actually kind of old-fashioned. Mostly gone are the DJ-music experiments of interim remix projects like Further Down the Spiral and The Perfect Drug EPs. Instead, The Fragile looks to older role models like King Crimson (whose Adrian Belew again adds impressionistic guitar flavor) and NIN pal David Bowie. Like art rockers before him, Reznor also nods to 20th-century classical music, mixing prepared piano melodies a la John Cage with thematic flavor from Claude Debussy (''La Mer''). The story line itself echoes classical mythology and Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. You almost expect a set of Cliffs Notes.
Mercifully, these 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'' (imagine Bowie's ''Heroes'' with severe depression standing in for the Berlin Wall), 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 Fragile's only shortcoming, ironically, is the relentless scab pulling that has always been NIN's raison d'etre. By the second CD, the suicidal impulses and pleading/bleeding rhyme schemes can feel exhausting. The Fragile feels freshest, and most like a progression from The Downward Spiral when the music struggles upward toward some sort of transcendence, whether via love (the first track and ''We're in This Together'') or pure musical beauty (the six instrumental pieces that punctuate the album).
NIN still get a lot of mileage out of rage: 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. A-