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Music: Reznor’s Redemption

5 minute read
David E. Thigpen

The long hair is gone, and so is the Mephistopheles-style goatee, but the eyes are still the first thing that strikes you about Trent Reznor. Watchful, wary, they gleam like embers, with a shadow of sadness flickering around their rims.

Yet wearing a wrinkled cotton shirt and a grungy pair of jeans, Reznor blends in so easily with the bohemian types streaming past him on a Greenwich Village sidewalk that it’s easy to forget he is the auteur behind one of the landmark albums of the decade, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, as well as an architect of the dark offshoot of heavy metal and punk called industrial rock. His themes of alienation and distress have influenced artists from Marilyn Manson to Oliver Stone. This week Reznor is making a return with a challenging new album, The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope), a work that rock fans are awaiting the same way storm chasers anticipate the next hurricane.

Downward Spiral’s impact still reverberates through the rock world. Its raging guitars and walloping percussion are more aggressive than anything that came before. The record was a Kafkaesque critique of an industrial world filled with poison-spewing factories and desolate, ruined people. Its harrowing music, for better or worse, established Reznor and his band, Nine Inch Nails, as one of the few fresh voices rock has produced since Kurt Cobain. But in the view of some social critics, its X-rated imagery made Reznor the spiritual sire of school violence and corrupted youth.

Success brought Reznor, now 34, his own label, Nothing Records, and his own studio, built in an old funeral home near his mansion in New Orleans. Music writers called him rock’s savior, while awestruck fans–Goths, punks, heavy-metal heads and hard-core rockers alike–showered him with handwritten poems and paintings inspired by his music.

Then, with a Kubrick-like air of mystery, Reznor withdrew into the cocoon of his velvet-walled home, and for the next five years was scarcely heard from. Emerging from his gloomy exile, he has a changed perspective and quite a story to tell about his years cloistered away. And he is packing a few surprises, for The Fragile is not just more of the same old musical Sturm und Drang. “The Fragile is a journey out from a place of desperation,” says Reznor. “There are threads of optimism.”

The journey the album depicts parallels Reznor’s own rocky one. The mind-whammy of sudden celebrity, the devastating 1997 death of the grandmother who raised him in his hometown of Mercer, Pa., and the overwhelming pressure to come up with another hit all converged to push Reznor into a quicksand of depression. “I was in a bad place,” he recalls. “I couldn’t work. I couldn’t look in the mirror.” Seldom listening to radio, tuning in to MTV “only to remind myself not what to do,” he shut himself off from the world. For weeks he avoided the studio and spent his time watching Scorsese’s Taxi Driver again and again. “I was a rat in a cage,” he says.

Reznor finally clambered out with the aid of a therapist. “[Therapy] helped me in the sense that it provided an explanation. They said, ‘You’re not up and down, you’re just a quart low.’ Not bad.” The awareness of his mild depression left him, he says, “not repaired but enlightened. I’m aware of my fragility now, which is a better thing. I’m not afraid to admit it.”

It also provided a theme for his new work. Recording of The Fragile began two years ago, and within a few months, 45 songs came tumbling out of Reznor. The final selection was whittled down to 23 tracks, but still weighs in at more than 100 minutes spread across two CDs.

The Fragile has very little fat on it, and in the age of the Backstreet Boys, it courageously dares to not pander to radio. The album has an organic feel, with little of the machine-like velocity and crushing density of Spiral. Reznor leaves breaks in the sonic wall this time, allowing the songs to breathe. He drives home a subtle message of uplift by filling the open spaces with soft, surprising textures rarely found in rock: cellos, violins, a ukulele here and there, and a tinkling piano–many of those played by Reznor himself, who also does most of the singing.

Reznor is far from defanged. He relishes his stance as a rock outsider. “I still feel like I don’t fit in anywhere,” he says. He insists that his role will always be cartographer of the murkier depths of the mind. “I’ll always feel a passion for what’s behind the door.” And he remains a trenchant critic of the record business and the “sound-alike, look-alike meaningless music” that rules today’s pop but saps its relevance. He has bigger targets too: America’s gun culture and the finger pointing of Washington moralists who blamed musicians for the Columbine massacre, which he blasts as “scapegoating” and “blurring the world of reality and fantasy. I don’t have messages of Go kill yourself or Don’t kill yourself in my music. People have to be given credit and responsibility for their own actions.”

What may most surprise listeners of The Fragile is Reznor’s disclosure that his rooting around in the dark side has revealed light. Not religion exactly, but spirituality. “I was in a spiritually vacant zone,” he says, “and I rounded a corner. I believe there’s a purpose and a karma that’s real. If it’s right for you, embrace it.” Embrace the album too, if you dare; but be careful, it’s fragile.

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