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The Haunting, Revisited by Trent Reznor

POP MUSIC

*** 1/2 NINE INCH NAILS, "The Fragile," Nothing Records

September 19, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN

In this album's opening track, "Somewhat Damaged," Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor takes us back to the depths of "The Downward Spiral," his 1994 masterpiece of despair. "Broken, bruised, forgotten, sore . . . ," he screams through the kind of relentless layers of sonic body blows that made "Spiral" so electrifying. "Poisoned to my rotten core."

The problem is, we've gone through his self-loathing before. Is that all he still has to tell us?

Fortunately, it's not.

For all its anguish, there was something glamorous and even a bit heroic about the way Reznor exorcised demons with assurance and command in "Spiral." Not so in "The Fragile."

In the album (due Tuesday), Reznor strips away all his armor and expresses inner confusion and pain in ways that are both frightening and sad. The portrait of psychological helplessness that emerges is more unsettling than anything in "The Blair Witch Project." There's no glamour or comfort in these tracks, only longing and dread.

Though the words are generic in places, the musical passages in song after song are extraordinary--so hauntingly personal and probing that the album often seems like a cry for help. The textures, built around chanting choirs and all sorts of odd guitar and percussion tones, are often closer to an enticing form of aggressive ambience than to his old industrial-rock force.

Much like the Smashing Pumpkins in rock's last big, important double album, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," however, "The Fragile" ultimately feels too long. Reznor doesn't convince you that every step of this 100-minute musical journey is really necessary.

At its heart, however, this is a profoundly challenging and moving work that strikes at the hollowness of most contemporary pop-rock with bullwhip force.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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