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Nine Inch Nails - 'The Fragile' Turns 20

This week sees the 20th anniversary of Nine Inch Nails’ now-iconic album The Fragile. The third studio album from Tret Reznor’s project and the follow up to The Downward Spiral that came a whole five years beforehand.

The Fragile was first teased at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards when a thirty-second trailer was shown to the audience but it would be a further year until the album finally released via Interscope Records.

When it did hit the stores the album weighed in at nearly two hours long and was spread across two discs. Recorded at Nothing Studios in New Orleans The Fragile boasted an impressive roster of production assistants including long term NIN collaborator Ian Moulder alongside names such as Steve Albini and even Andre Young better known as Dr. Dre, who was reportedly a mixing assistant. Other contributors included Adrien Belew (King Crimson), Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin, Page Hamilton (Helmet), Dave Ogilvie (Skinny Puppy), and Tony Thompson (Chic).

The album had been birthed in Reznor’s base of operations, his New Orleans mansion while he was apparently “dangerously high” on a cocktail of hard drugs. Reznor was deep in his own psyche and desperate self-loathing at this stage, he set about pouring every shred of dark emotion he had within him into the project in an attempt to heal or at least find an outlet.

Trent elaborated on this little more in an interview with SPIN magazine back in 2005, telling them, “The Fragile was an album based a lot in fear, because I was afraid as fuck about what was happening to me ... That's why there aren't a lot of lyrics on that record. I couldn't fucking think. An unimaginable amount of effort went into that record in a very unfocused way”

Knowing the background and mental state The Fragile was written in adds a new dimension to the record when listening to it again today. The gloomy soundscapes, the experimentation and Reznor’s droning vocals in places make more sense than they may have back in 1999. It was a different musical and cultural landscape at the time, Nu-Metal was being birthed, N-Sync, Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin were still hot properties and The Offspring were riding high in the mainstream off the success of Americana and Pretty Fly For A White Guy whilst the Matrix and Star Wars Episode 1 were fresh new movies.

A dark, moody, post-industrial album could have possibly failed in this market had it not been as highly anticipated and attached to the NIN brand. The Fragile also had the allure of being a possible masterpiece in the making given its extensive creation period. The first single ‘The Day The World Went Away’ found success ahead of release and had hit the number seventeen spot on BIllboard's Hot 100 further adding to the anticipation.

Other tracks taken from the record would also find success including Starfuckers Inc. which was originally intended as a ‘diss track’ aimed at Marylin Manson after a falling out between the shock rock icon and Trent Reznor. ‘We’re In This Together’ became an anthem and one of NIN’s most popular tracks overall and landed itself a space in SPIN’s list of ‘Best Alternative Rock Songs of ’99’.

The album came into the US Billboard 200 chart at number one but would experience a record-breaking fall as it plummeted to number sixteen just a week later, despite initial critical success, with SPIN awarding a 9/10, Rolling Stone a 4/5 verdict and Pitchfork a score of 8.7/10.

Seemingly as the hype died down and fans really got to grips with the album and opinions spread out across the early internet, the bubble around The Fragile burst. In places the album can be jarring, off centre and in others brilliant and versatile, it begs you to become immersed within it, a record that needs to be experienced in its entirety through headphones as well as having the robust nature to offer tracks that can work as standalone. It’s with age however that it’s really found a foothold among many fans rankings of top albums. NIN’s back catalogue has, of course, grown exponentially since it’s release but it still finds a lofty place in a body of work that’s bristling with masterfully put together albums. It went on to score double platinum in the US and Canada and Silver status in the UK further cementing its position.

The slightly confusing cover art was designed by David Carson who spoke about the process in his book Fotografiks explaining that the top section of the cover is from a photo of a waterfall and the bottom, larger photo is a closeup of the inside of a seashell. On his web site, Carson shed further light on this,

[The] back [cover] was going to be the front until the last moment. Trent changed it saying 'it was kinda irritating' yet something about it we liked so maybe it fit the music. Front cover flowers I shot outside of Austin, Texas. The 1 hour place called and said they messed up and used the wrong chemicals and the film was ruined. I said 'lemme see 'em anyway'. This is how they came out. Cover image is a waterfall in Iceland and a seashell in the West Indies.

Today Trent Reznor is a different person, he has evolved further as an artist and now works in film score production as well as solo work, NIN seems to no longer be the number one priority in his career. The Fragile will always remain as a testament or a reminder if you will, to a time and place that was very different from today. Those little things that were labelled as oddities on the record have become much-loved tropes and form the identity of an album that wasn’t sure of its place in the world. An ironic reflection of the mental state its creator found himself drowning in at the time of its conception. A project that was intended as a therapy turned out just as confused yet brilliant as it’s master but over time found its place.