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No Need to Change: Trent Reznor keeps delivering the same message of angst.

Forever Young

A 'Fragile' Trent Reznor can't outgrow angst and self-loathing on new Nine Inch Nails album

By Gina Arnold

THE LAST TIME Nine Inch Nails toured America, Trent Reznor's golden retriever, Maise, met with a fatal accident backstage, falling from the third tier of the arena. It was 1995.

Soon after, Reznor (the leader and really the only permanent member of the industrial rock band known as Nine Inch Nails) stopped touring and recording. And although there is no evidence to connect the death of a favorite pet with this complete halt in productivity--a more likely scenario is mere writer's block--it would certainly be a good enough reason for me. I mean, what could possibly be worse?

The irony of this awful incident is that Reznor's entire oeuvre is one long paean to the angst of daily life. In songs like "Broken" and "March of the Pigs," Reznor makes the ordinary activity of living in America in the late 20th century--a time and a place not exactly rife with the kinds of horrors previous eras have held--sound as bad as the Inquisition or World War I in terms of the mental toll it takes on the minds of spoiled young white men.

His dog's death (and the death of his grandmother, who raised him) proves that Reznor, unlike many secluded and deluded rock stars, has in fact suffered a real tragedy in the 10 years since the release of his enormously lucrative and influential (if utterly unimportant) debut album, Pretty Hate Machine.

You wouldn't know it from listening to The Fragile (Nothing Records/Interscope), his first record in five years, however. Obviously, the problem with having couched your whole artistic vision in hyperbolic terms of Gothic horror is that when something really bad happens to you, you have no more dreadful adjectives with which to describe it.

Perhaps that's why 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, along with the powerful song "Head Like a Hole" and his stint on the second Lollapalooza tour in 1992, still stands as Reznor's crowning achievement, the apex of his artistic vision. For a moment there, he seemed like a real player.

But everything else since then, including the much-vaunted Downward Spiral LP and the single that went "I want to fuck you like an animal," has been repetitive dross, an endless tape loop of Reznor refining his points of contention with society: angst, betrayal, anger and more angst.

And that really is unacceptable, for a couple of reasons. After all, the whole crux of good fiction, film, drama and art is growth. Look carefully at the narrative structure of your favorite novel, for instance, and you will see that it hinges on some change in the main character's head or even heart. The old man discovers that he loves his grandchild. The girl outgrows her insecurity when she finds inner strength. The guy with the meaningless existence uncovers meaning in true love. And so on and so forth.

Of course, it's true that in real life, people never change as much as one would hope. But they do change, thanks to the forces of reality and the inevitable process of maturation. Sometimes they change for the worse. But Trent Reznor, it seems, does not change at all.

You'd think that whatever other rotten (or even good) things have happened to him in the last decade would have made him a bigger person, a deeper thinker or even just a little more insightful. But no.

Reznor's resolute determination to repeat the juvenile themes of his earlier works shows a real commitment on his part to either greed (that is, the hope that the formula will work with succeeding generations of teens) or mental stagnation. His métier is, like Shakespeare's definition of lust in action, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

TO BE FAIR, this failure to grow is not unique to Reznor. Many rock musicians have faced similar difficulties either maturing or matching their new reality with the problems of their fans.

It's just more obvious with Nine Inch Nails, because the subject of the songs (which portend to be the soundtrack to the inner voices of adolescent rage and alienation, a soundtrack that has been reiterated by bands like Korn, Rage and Limp Bizkit and that is now often talked about in relation to recent high school shootings) seems ever more contrived.

In fact, the more adept Reznor becomes at manipulating music, the more his rants sound ridiculous. The guy's a studio genius, but he sure hasn't thought of anything new to say about life. "I keep trying to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away," he sings on the tortured "Into the Void." That's about as good as it gets, insight-wise.

The Fragile is a double album. It was years in the making, and it alternates between normal NIN-type singles like "StarFuckers, Inc." and "Somewhat Damaged" (which sound much like work on the previous two albums) and long, textured, instrumental interludes.

The lyrics dwell on pain, degradation, obsessiveness and other nasty personality traits. The title cut, "The Fragile," lifts its head above the mire for a moment, with Reznor yelling, "I won't let you fall apart." (Remember, the "you" here is self-referential: Reznor is a fighter, not a lover.) Overall, the record is extremely musical, a fiesta of orchestral lights and darks. The tempo alternates neatly among symphonic pensiveness--"La Mere," "The Wretched," the endless "Ripe (With Decay)"--choppy, synthy dance tracks--"The Big Come Down"--and Reznor's patented self-loathing shout.

None of these are particularly trendy right now in music, which doesn't mean that The Fragile is a bad record, but it's not breaking any new ground. In fact, Reznor, like David Bowie before him, has always been a master of appropriation, taking a great deal of his sound from the band Ministry in the beginning (although now his main influences sound more like Pink Floyd, late-era Depeche Mode and Queen).

But after a five-year break from the spotlight, Reznor demonstrates that his aesthetic sensibility is still distressingly vieux jeu. He is the type of guy who has built himself a studio in an old funeral home with the original front door from Sharon Tate's ill-fated house tacked on for a boost of spookiness. You'd think Marilyn Manson's whole shtick would have turned Reznor off to anything Mansonesque, but apparently the bearded one still holds some kind of dumb fascination.

Of course, all of this is by the way. The main question a critic always asks when confronted with a double album--i.e, more than two hours of music--is "Is it worth it?" It's a darned pertinent question, since such a record costs about $25, and I think the answer here is "Yes, but only if you are already a Nine Inch Nails fan."

If you've been listening to Broken and Downward Spiral for the last five years and are dying for new material--or perhaps if your dog recently died a horrible death--then this plethora of similar-sounding stuff will be a godsend. But what if you used to listen to those rather cheerless records about self-loathing and despair a few years ago and have since moved on? Emotional growth is possible, even in this day and age--at least for anyone who's not a rock star. In that case, The Fragile may bore you, as it does me.

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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