Even sporadic moments of inspired sound can’t save The Fragile from itself. Trent Reznor drops a new haircut and this audio slab on the world and leaves us to wonder which is more intriguing. This album is a stationary tour diary documenting five years of going nowhere, at least not past the doorway of self-pity narrowed by the narcissistic redundancy of teen Goth poetry. The Fragile is the sound of time and emotion wasted on writer’s block and playing mentor to ungrateful, voracious protégé Marilyn Manson – and then there are those other bands that stayed sheltered beneath his dark wing. (How strange that most of their names don’t leap to mind.) The decade-old memory of the still-untainted genius that exploded into the irresistible, raw self-absorption of Pretty Hate Machine has faded into nothing more than recycled bitterness about the personal disappointments and spiritual bankruptcy of rock stardom. At least back then we were convinced. Yet in a roundabout way, The Fragile does make a case for commercial success being a strike against creativity.
Unfortunately, it embodies the idea more than it manages to comment on it, as all attempts at irony are lost to obviousness and swells of high-pitched emotion that no listener – only the creator – is allowed to feel. "The Day the World Went Away," "Where is Everybody?" and "Ripe (With Decay)" make way for the anomalous single "We’re in This Together." Contradictions should be constructed more carefully, if they’re supposed to be interesting.
Meanwhile, outside the pity party, there are a few interesting things going on that don’t come off like an angry, wasted rock star jerking off to Antichrist Superstar or Filter. The soft keys, deep beats and feminine vocal waves of "La Mer" are worthwhile, if not for their delicate, hypnotic ear work, then at least for the absence of bad lyrics: "In the blur of serenity/ where did everything get lost?/the flowers of naïveté/buried in a layer of frost" (from "I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally"). Of course, "The Great Below," which follows "La Mer," brings back Reznor’s vocals in the slow, sad, candle-burning cadence of that old regretful anthem, "Hurt" – only to prove, of course, that the only thing worse than self-parody is post-self-parody.