As the double-disc The Fragile unfurls, all of Nine Inch Nails' trademarks -- gargantuan, processed guitars, ominous electro rhythms, near-ambient keyboards, Trent Reznor's shredded vocals and tortured words -- are unveiled, all sounding pretty much how they did on The Downward Spiral. Upon closer inspection, there are new frills, yet these aren't apparent without digging -- and what's on the surface isn't necessarily inviting, either. There is nothing as rhythmic or catchy as "Closer," nothing as jarring as the piano chorus of "March of the Pigs," no ballad as naked as "Hurt." When Reznor does try for something immediate and visceral, he sounds recycled. Fortunately, The Fragile lives up to its title once the first disc is over. There are some detours into noisy bluster (some, like the Marilyn Manson dis "Starfuckers, Inc.," work quite well) but they're surrounded by long, evocative instrumental sections that highlight Reznor's gifts for arrangement. Whenever Reznor crafts delicate, alternately haunting and pretty soundscapes or interesting sonic juxtapositions, The Fragile is compelling. Since they provide a change of pace, the bursts of industrial noise assist the flow of the album, which never feels indulgent, even though it runs over 100 minutes. Still, The Fragile is ultimately a letdown. There's no denying that it's often gripping, offering odd and interesting variations on NIN themes, but that's the problem -- they're just variations, not progressions. Considering that it arrives five years after Spiral, that is a disappointment. It's easy to tell where the time went -- Reznor's music is immaculately crafted and arranged, with every note and nuance gliding into the next -- but he spent more time constructing surfaces than songs. Those surfaces can be enticing but since it's just surface, The Fragile winds up being vaguely unsatisfying.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2