In its newly remastered and rereleased incarnation, Trent Reznor's 1999 magnum opus The Fragile scrapes the sky like never before. Its companion, a reworking called Deviations 1, is mostly a curio.
When Trent Reznor debuted The Fragile, the followup to his star-making The Downward Spiral some five years after that record’s release, comparisons to Pink Floyd’s go-to double album The Wall abounded. For one thing, Reznor tapped that record’s producer, Bob Ezrin, to help sequence from the chaotic collection of tracks he’d assembled. For another, both records were released at the turn of their respective decades, and could be seen as summary statements for much of the music of the ten years that preceded them.
But the most direct point of comparison is the sheer scale of both recordings. No, not their length, but their height, if you will. Years of overfamiliarity might have dulled our appreciation for just how goddamn towering they both sound. The Wall’s two versions of its anthemic introductory track “In the Flesh” and David Gilmour’s soaring solo on “Comfortably Numb” all but demand you look upward to see where the notes are coming from. Reznor and his collaborators—most notably producer Alan Moulder and guest guitarist Adrian Belew—similarly made The Fragile’s songs sound like vertical constructions, piling element on element, often with dizzying rapidity. And in its newly remastered and rereleased incarnation, The Fragile (2017 Definitive Edition), the record scrapes the sky like never before.
“The Fragile” and “Just Like You Imagined,” highlights of the album’s first disc (thinking it of a CD is a hard habit to break after nearly twenty years), are two of The Fragile’s most effective moments in this regard. Shambling into existence with a slow, steady drum beat that sounds like rattling chains, the title track works its way through three iterations of its chorus, the sole lyric of which is the disarmingly direct promise “I won’t let you fall apart”: first softly, near the bottom of Reznor’s vocal register; then at an ear-splitting, double-tracked shout, accompanied by cinematic synths; and finally with multi-tracked, major-key harmonies that turn the phrase into something close to a prayer. “Just Like You Imagined,” arguably Reznor’s finest moment as a composer, picks up where “The Fragile” leaves off, using that same celestial-chorus harmony construction and prominent cameos from Bowie sidemen Mike Garson on piano and Belew on guitar to create a wordless epic, spiraling upward in volume and intensity.
Which is not to say that The Fragile is all lacerating art-rock bombast. On the Dr. Dre-assisted “Even Deeper” and the late-album high point “The Big Comedown,” Reznor crafts a methodical industrial robo-funk that evokes deep-sea sonar pings and a malfunctioning robot, respectively. “Into the Void,” a direct Black Sabbath reference, juxtaposes the very NIN sentiment “Tried to save myself but my self keeps slipping away” with very un-NIN “ooh-wah-ah-ah” backing vocals. Its follow-up, “Where Is Everybody?,” is a sludgy pelvic thrust with a title cribbed from “The Twilight Zone” and a delightfully dark doggerel chorus: “Pleading and needing and bleeding and breeding and feeding, exceeding…Trying and lying, defying, denying, crying and dying.” Both are reminiscent of first-disc standout “The Wretched,” a relentless throb with a chorus that bellows “Now you know this is what it feels like” (itself an answer to “How does it feel?,” the refrain of Reznor’s collaboration with industrial supergroup Pigface “Suck”) and the almost comically spiteful line “The clouds will part and the sky cracks open and God Himself will reach his fucking arm through just to push you down, just to hold you down.” Misery loves comedy!
But it loves empathy too, and this is where The Fragile stands out from NIN’s catalog. On tracks like “The Fragile” (that “I won’t let you fall apart” chorus, the climactic assertion “It’s something I have to do—I was there too/Before everything else, I was like you”), “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally,” and “We’re in This Together” (the proof is in the song titles), Reznor dismantles his reputation for solipsistic self-loathing and outwardly aimed anger. There’s plenty of both, sure; album lowlight “Starfuckers, Inc.,” for example, is familiar to students of the alt-rock gossip circuit of the period as Trent’s kiss-off to his estranged former protégé Marilyn Manson, while their subsequent rapprochement led to a video where they teamed up against a Courtney Love lookalike. But in the main, The Fragile depicts an artist desperate to preserve the few connections he still has in the face of ever-growing substance abuse (this was the final album he’d record before getting clean and sober) and crippling grief (the record contains a dedication to his grandmother, a beloved figure who’d recently died). Whether positive or negative, the roiling, confessional tumult of the lyrics is reflected in the monumental sound, and vice versa.
The cumulative approach is at its clearest in “10 Miles High.” Cut from the CD version of the album to trim minutes off its already elephantine running time, the song had previously been relegated to B-side status, appearing only on the relatively obscure original vinyl edition, where both space and pacing permitted it to remain. Heard it in its proper context at last, “10 Miles High” comes across as the emotional and sonic key to the whole album: titanic in scale, unpredictably varied in its dynamic range, and absolutely annihilating in its despair and rage.
Beginning with a tinkling synth shimmer and distant-sounding vocals that murmur “I’m getting closer/I’m getting closer/All the time” (a callback to the band’s biggest hit, of course), the song gains ominous strength with loping, pounding drums and an assertive bassline. A repetitive, sour-sounding guitar joins in just before initial chorus bursts through the murk: Reznor shouts “I tried to get so high/I made it ten miles high,” each “high” echoing like a sonic exclamation point through the crunch of the guitar and drums that sound like they’ve been covered in cast iron.
Then the song peels back to a low hum, with a sardonically jaunty guitar strum and Reznor’s incomprehensible whispering dimly audible in the background. When the chorus and its repeated proclamations of miles-high self-medication come back, everything sounds muffled and choked rather than crisp and piercing. “I swore to God I would never turn into you,” Reznor’s muted voice screams, his disappointment in his failure dripping from every word like venom. The song ends as quietly as it began, with Reznor chanting the words “tear it all down, tear it all down” over and over until everything cuts off. As a lyrical and musical chronicle of complete and total personal failure, it’s peerless in the Nine Inch Nails catalog; only Broken’s scabrous “Gave Up” and The Downward Spiral’s title track (a song whose sonic toolbox “10 Miles High” raids extensively, but which somehow sounds optimistic in comparison despite its suicidal subject matter) come close.
All of this makes The Fragile: Deviations 1 a truly perplexing proposition. Reznor’s on record as saying that the original album emerged from perhaps the darkest period of his adult life, but that the recording process was a life-affirming period in retrospect. He’s teased a revamped re-release for the better part of the past decade, up to and including a more straightforward Apple Music-exclusive instrumental version a few years back on which several new tracks were debuted. Deviations 1 (Reznor’s obsessive ambition makes that numeral worth noting) is the fulfillment of this promise. Less a remix than a recreation, it’s meticulously constructed by Reznor and his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross from the existing recordings, stripping away the vocals and introducing alternate takes and brand-new songs culled from dozens of unused tracks. The result is a complement to the original, but not necessarily a compliment; its deviations are worth exploring for the curious and the completists, but they’re ultimately less than the sum of the additional parts.
Most of Deviations’ deviations, and certainly the best of them, are structural. By adding the new songs, a dozen in total, Reznor is able to seed melodic and rhythmic ideas for more thoroughgoing use later in the album. This, granted, is nothing new for Nine Inch Nails: The plinked-out keyboard hook at the end of “Closer” returns as the central melody of The Downward Spiral’s title track; “The Frail” is an acoustic work-through of the chorus of “The Fragile”; and “La Mer” introduces the playful melody later used to punishing effect in “Into the Void.” Reznor returns to this well with at least a couple of the new additions: “Missing Pieces,” inserted prior to “We’re in This Together,” serves as a prologue that introduces several of its key sounds, while “Last Heard From” revives them just prior to the album’s final stretch.
But Deviations’ experiment with musical foreshadowing goes a bit deeper. On the original, the breakbeat-and-guitar bedrock of “Starfuckers, Inc.” was a sonic anomaly, making the already dubious song even tougher to take in context. Here, new tracks “One Way to Get There,” “Taken,” and “+Appendage,” plus the skittering direct lead-in “Feeders,” insert that Atari Teenage Riot/Earthling-era Bowie sound at multiple points throughout the record, which goes a long way to making “Starfuckers” easier to stomach. Yes, it’s still a less-good “The Perfect Drug” with a goon-squad chorus, but at least it can’t sneak up on you anymore. (The inclusion of the single version’s pisstake coda—a sample of Paul Stanley shouting “GOODNIGHT!” at a crowd that begins chanting “WE WANT KISS! WE WANT KISS!” in response—indicates Reznor’s aware of the song’s goofball nature.)
More interesting still is the intermission that Reznor inserts between the original break between discs one and two. In its original incarnation, the first half ends with the synth-Floyd soundscape “The Great Below,” and the second half begins with “The Way Out is Through,” a tear-down-the-sky (literally: the lyrics in the vocal version prominently feature the phrase “the heavens fall”) behemoth of distortion and vocal reverb. Deviations tosses in a trio of tracks as a palate cleanser between these two showstoppers: an open-ended guitar-and-drum loop called “Not What It Seems Like,” a wobbly bass-and-percussion number named “White Mask,” and “The New Flesh,” moved up in the track listing from its place on the original vinyl, its crescendoes serving as a sort of precursor to the high-volume “The Way Out Is Through.” Given the concrete purpose they serve, perhaps it’s unsurprising that they’re the best of the the new tracks. They are nevertheless bested by “Was It Worth It?,” a newbie crammed in amongst the party jams “Into the Void” and “Where Is Everybody?” Between a handful of squalling guitar lines and a keyboard melody that sounds like a rotating prism, it has more hooks than the opening scene of Hellraiser.
Yet even at a dozen strong, the new tracks don’t fully tell Deviations’ tale. That task falls to the now all-instrumental versions of the original songs, few of which hold up when compared to the originals. In some cases this comes down to dubious editing choices: “Pilgrimage (Alternate Version)” strips away its precursor’s “Tusk”-style marching-band section. Closing track “Ripe With Decay (Instrumental)” adds a backbeat, stripping much of the power of the entropic original. Most bafflingly, “10 Miles High (Instrumental)” builds up the regular version’s secondary guitar riff—played so quietly in the original that its presence seems almost sarcastic, like a mockery of the whole idea of riffs—into a dull cock-rock stomp and strut.
The album’s biggest problem, though, is a lack of editing, not a surfeit. Most of these songs have a pretty reliable melodic template; take out the words, and you’re left with overlong and unvaried segments. Groove-based songs like “Even Deeper,” “Into the Void,” “Where Is Everybody?”, and “The Big Comedown” weather this excess relatively well, since their rhythm-oriented structure has a funk-like momentum that carries them through the surplus sections. More straightforward rockers like “No, You Don’t” or “Please,” however—never the album’s strongest moments—drag noticeably without Reznor’s voice. If you want a metaphor for what’s lost in this new version, the revamped cover—a black, white, and gray David Carson photograph of a waterfall, now denuded of the original’s vibrant red overlay—pretty much says it all.
Reznor and Ross have no shortage of experience with instrumental recordings; indeed, turning The Fragile into an instrumental album merely brings it line with the bulk of the duo’s recorded output over eight years since NIN put out its sprawling collection of soundscape sketches Ghosts I-IV. At the time of the album’s original release, Reznor already had the unjustly forgotten score for the first-person shooter game Quake under his belt, and The Fragile 1.0 has no shortage of instrumentals. This makes the lack of a more stringent editorial hand all the more perplexing. Far too many of Deviations’ freshly vocal-free songs sound like karaoke versions rather than instrumentals that can stand on their own. The result is a listening experience that outstays its welcome on a song-by-song basis, let alone over the course of its massive 150-minute running time.
Fortunately, the originals are still out there. The Fragile arrived a stylistic turning point, emerging at the point where the “alternative” sobriquet fell out of fashion and “indie” achieved dominance. Today, though, reservations about the lyrics’ outré confessionality and the music’s jam-packed, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink gigantism seem positively quaint. (Don’t care for titanically hyper-produced albums stuffed with uncomfortably intimate and self-mythologizing lyrics about your emotional world falling apart? Tell it to Lemonade.) The Fragile may lack the tightness of Nine Inch Nails’ other highlights: the concise fury of Broken, the inexorable depressive logic of The Downward Spiral, the late-career professionalism of Hesitation Marks. But it takes the emotional distress that gives it its title and transmutes it into something colossal, defiant, and resilient. Listen to it at your strongest or your weakest (and I’ve certainly done both) and it will offer you a sonic signature commensurate with the power of what you feel inside.