Wow, it only took a few months and now we’re left with four entries on my top albums of all time. I must confess though. Picking among the next four has been extremely difficult. All of these albums are monumental to me, and each one brings something different. The last four albums were all also released within two years of each other, so you could say these records came to me at a very important period in my life. Before we get to the top three though, we’re going to be talking about number four, Nine Inch Nails severely underrated “The Fragile.” This double behemoth of a record is basically Nin’s version of Weezer’s Pinkerton. Among casual fans it’s appreciated vastly, but at the time of the release it didn’t change the world in the way the previous album had, and for some, it was a disappointment. For most hardcore fans though, it’s not only the best album Reznor has made to date, but it has everything a nin fan could want. The songwriting is excellent, and he takes the success of “The Downward Spiral” and adds to it in even more experimental ways. Number Four on my list, Nine Inch Nails “The Fragile.”
This album, recorded at the now defunct Nothing Studios in New Orleans is sonically, conceptually, and emotionally heavy. While “The Downward Spiral” brought the band, and Reznor especially into the forefront of cutting edge rock music , its success ushered in the ability for the band to explore even more and create an all time classic as far as I’m concerned. “Somewhat Damaged,” which opens the album with a crushing instrumental section and lyrics that are full of venom, gives way to the somber, heavy, and eerily gorgeous layers that make up “The Day the World Went Away.” Many of the songs on this record were firsts for the band, and this is an early sign that this is an album that will both surprise and reward the listener. I venture to say that aside from Radiohead, there was no other well known “rock” band of the time who did more for original, forward thinking rock music. TDTWWA is full of soul, sadness, and the nah nah nah’s at the end of the song really work in the construct of the song. These chants were supposedly created by emptying a bar close to the studio and having drunks chant the part.
At the time, Reznor was going through a rough patch. His grandmother had passed, and drugs and alcohol were slowly ruining his life. Hearing the album now, you can hear the pain in his voice, and at times it even appears that he’s slipping even further down a dangerous hole. Having said that, the beats on this album, along with the very high production value, are amazing, and while the tone of the album isn’t bright, the message comes across beautifully. Songs like “Please,” or the “The Frail” and “The Wretched,” are densely compacted with samples, textures and layers that set up a perfect dim room album. “The Wretched” especially is a force of nature. It comes early on in the over two hour record, but it’s placement is key.
Probably my favorite song of all time by this band comes next in the form of “We’re In This Together.” There was always just something about this track. The beat quickening and then sinking into ominous doom, before picking up again with a bombastic drumbeat, it gets you into a groove very fast and doesn’t let it’s grasp go for over 7 minutes. It’s such a beautiful song, and sadly, one that is never played live. I’ve read things regarding this that seem to point out that it’s among Reznor’s favorite songs of all time, and he doesn’t think he could ever do it justice live. Even if that’s not the case, the vocal range of the track is quite difficult. There’s simply not enough good things I can say about it, so I’ll just leave it at that.
This album also has some absolutely killer instrumental tracks. Usually instrumentals are known for not being as in your face, but on “The Fragile” it’s almost the opposite. “Just Like You Imagined” is remarkably bad ass, and the chaos in the song isn’t really matched at all on the whole first disc. It’s a journey through war, and darkness, and if you’ve ever seen the trailer for “300” which uses this track, you know it’s basically the best trailer of all time. Now, I use the term instrumental slightly loosely here. This song does have vocals, but it takes up essentially 10 seconds of the song, and it doesn’t even have lyrics. Either way, the song is incredible, and it’s placement on the record is at a great point and keeps the listener engaged for what is next to come.
The other prominent instrumental here is “Pilgrimage.” Following the beat heavy but low tempo “Even Deeper,” “Pilgrimage” is a death march made up of unrelenting beats and drilling that pummels the listener into submission. It very much brings ideas and visuals to your head that make you think of the Nazi’s storming the world, slowly trying to take over everything.
Going back to “Even Deeper” though. It’s one of the more dismissed songs when I talk to other fans, and I can never seem to figure out why. It follows the same boundaries and rules of the other songs on the album, and Reznor’s voice and lyrics here are a spot above most of the other tracks on the album. The song to me is a wake up call to the character, and a warning that things happen, and sometimes it sucks, but you have to keep going and work through it.
The first disc comes to a brilliant conclusion in the way of “La Mer” and “The Great Below.” Both lovely songs, they are the ying and yang on this album. “La Mer” creeps up on you with a quite smile in the form of beautiful French sung lyrics, and translated they are quite pretty. Translated, they spell out “And when the day arrives, Ill become the sky, and I’ll become the sea, and the sea will come to kiss me, for I am going home. Nothing Can stop me now.” You might recognize that last line from the “The Downward Spiral’s” “Piggy,” but beyond that it’s one of the prettier and light songs in the band’s whole discography. It also just happens to be the only appropriate song by this band that we could play at our wedding. The piano throughout the song is airy and floaty, and the way the drums come in and give the song a boost is executed well. From the slow fade in this song, we venture into darker territories to find ourselves becoming one with “The Great Below.” One of my favorite of the slower nin songs, this is the emotional cliff at the end of the trail for the first half of this record. As a listener it’s deep and layered, but as a person imagining being in that position, there’s a certain amount of willingness to let go and let the chips fall where they may. Seeing this song live (It hasn’t been played since the Fragility V2.0 tour) featured Reznor playing in front of screens depicting rocking waves hitting roughly over deserted rocks in a kind of forgotten world. This song is a forgotten world, with the author singing quietly but emotionally of a love that the world forget. It’s the usual slow closer that so many of the albums have, but it’s also among the most sincere. The imagery is some of the best on the whole record too, and the synth quietly making themselves known behind the straining pains of the vocals is the perfect way to end the first record.
If you think about it, this album seems to be very well thought out in terms of pacing and timing. The character from “The Great Below” is resigning himself to going through whatever he has to, and he’s prepared to leave it all behind. To do that though, he must continue. “The Way is Through” is a hard fought struggle to get through this shit, but ultimately it’s a very strong song, and with it, we enter the second disc(or Right). “I will keep on” sets the tone of the song, and the beats and drums are picking up the rear, slowly but surely building power and strength until the explosive core of the song is reached. It’s one of the most amazing starts to a album I’ve ever heard, and it’s among my all time favorite nin songs. Finally getting to see this song performed live at Bonnaroo 2009 was a highlight of all my concert experiences, and it still gives me goosebumps to hear it.
Now, many people think that the Right Disc of the record isn’t as great as the Left side. To an extent I agree, but I still wouldn’t dismiss it completely. Unfortunately Right does have one of the worst nin songs of all time(Starfuckers, Inc.)but in other places it has some of the best, and most ambitious songs. “Into the Void” is pretty catchy, and the beat is hard to evacuate from. Another great, and proper instrumental comes to us at number four, with “The Mark has been Made.” The song is dire, and very much speaks to me in regards to abandonment. Often times I feel alone in the world, and to be honest, I feel that way currently. This slow burn of a song and the ultimate intense conclusion signals to me the end of the road where everything you’ve done wrong catches up to you, and you can’t change anything. You have to surrender and give up, because once “The Mark has been Made,” there’s no going back.** Expression is faulty **(That last thing just appeared on my word document, and I kind of like it, so it stays).
Through my life, numerous things have impacted me, and from time to time it gets hard to breathe. A way out is always on my mind in these moments, but I try my best to hold on. Those are the times I need this album the most. I guess a part of me feels like during the making of this album, Reznor felt the same. As I mentioned earlier, his grandmother who had raised him had passed away. As someone who was most close in this world to their grandmother, I can relate to the emotions presented here. While “The Downward Spiral” is known for being self destructive and melancholy, this record is deep, deep pain. “Please” is angry and in your face, and other songs like “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally” immediately make me think of my grandmother. Sometimes there’s nothing I’d rather do than end it all and meet her where ever she is, but I try to remember that maybe other people need me too, and even though I let her down and wasn’t there when she left this world, she still loved me, and maybe if there’s an after life, I’ll somehow see her again, Even writing this now I’m in tears because this song impacts me so much. It’s a song that features a singular theme musically, with the only prominent sound not sung lyrics coming from deliberate and steady drums. The end is pretty cool too, and it really adds a good dynamic to the track,
The last three songs are some of the best tracks on the entire record, and they perfectly capture the feel and emotional core of the record. “The Big Come Down” is one of my favorite songs by this band ever, and every time I hear it I like it more and more. The beat opening the song is similar to the beat in Pilgrimage, in the way that it has drilling characteristics. The vocals are throaty and pissed off, and it reminds me of a man running through alley ways trying to escape a big monster. It’s appropriate that it’s near the end of the album. We finally get “The Big Come Down.”
“Underneath It All” follows it, and it’s just as intense, maybe more so than the previous tracks. Again it’s a pummeling song, and it very much is the sign of the end. I always wonder where this theme of unrelenting beats came from. It’s a theme that goes through many of the songs, and while I don’t know if I was deliberate, I’m glad it’s a noticeable theme on the album, because it fits. The album closing choice, “Ripe with Decay,” is the slow burn song above all slow burn songs. It’s pretty dark and creepy, and I believe that even though it was made a decade before Reznor’s Score work started happening, this let’s us know that the work would be good, and that he can without a doubt make ominous music to set moods and elevate situations.
“The Fragile” remains an unparalled album of depth and scope, and it’s likely going to stay among my favorites until I die. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Next time we’re taking about what happens when someone with a Grudge meets someone who is Patient. Thanks for reading.