Friday, 21 February 2014

The Art of Things Falling Apart

Production notes for Nine Inch Nails' album, The Fragile

Nine Inch Nails has always been concerned with things falling apart: destruction, self-destruction, corruption, decay, downward spirals, dystopia, cracks, glitches, broken machines, broken people. Alternately confrontational and self-loathing, external and internalised, it's a list of dark negatives that pervades the music, the lyrics, the album and concept art, the live performances, the music videos, and quite possibly Mr Trent Reznor himself.

It's been said (and I'd source this if I could remember where) that what differentiated NIN from other bands that got stuck with the label 'industrial' was that Reznor made it personal. He turned it all inward, making it emotional and introspective. Even at his most confrontational, his songs are nearly always about a state of mind—not necessarily always his, sometimes constructing a persona to explore a certain psychology, as in 'Closer' or 'Capital G'. But they always have a subjective bent, and all that 'industrial' stuff gets internalised... all the strange, tense, unnatural and uncomfortable noises used to explore and represent these usually deteriorating mindsets. They're subjectivities of brokenness, often mirroring broken systems imposed from the outside.

The way Reznor creates and layers these sounds gives NIN an emotional range that goes far beyond the words he sings. If you listen to the lyrics of the latest album, Hesitation Marks, they all tread and retread the same very simple ground—the 'I' of Reznor battling/embracing the 'you' of what might be NIN, those dark depths of his soul, his past self, the needy throngs of NIN fans who want to pull him back in, etc, etc—while the music itself takes us on a complex, more various journey that explores and rounds out all of the related emotions with a subtlety the words could never touch.

I'm not personally that attentive when it comes to lyrics. It's not that I don't hear them, or pick up on them, or consider them an important part of the song, but in music what matters much more to me is the general emotional thrust of the whole track, how it aesthetically impacts or insinuates, which incorporates but doesn't ride wholly on the lyrics. I like to bury myself in the whole sound. And while Reznor's lyrics do often provide NIN's most immediate and significant emotional content, and it's personal and raw, it's just one important layer of many in technically complex productions.

The lyrics, though, while probably the most easily criticised aspect of NIN for their sometimes cringingly angsty nature, have their moments too. Some of NIN's most satisfying moments are when they cut a little deeper and present the darker realities behind the triter angst. In 'The Perfect Drug', for example, a straightforward, even soppy line, 'Without you, everything falls apart', repeated throughout the track, is followed up at the end with, 'Without you, it's not as much fun to pick up the pieces', a more complex, broken idea of intimacy.

Year Zero's 'Capital G' takes on the persona of a power-hungry, egotistical megalomaniac, which, like the rest of the dystopia-themed album, is not a hugely original take on the political realities it portrays, but it's a persona that's not unfamiliar territory to NIN. Rather than simply condemning it, Reznor does what Reznor does best—he occupies that mindset, makes it emotionally real, and evokes the seductive nature of power with the lines, 'Don't try to tell me that some power can corrupt a person/You haven't had enough to know what it's like.'

And in 'Everything', the alarmingly upbeat song from the latest album, the unicorn-from-the-ashes pop punk refrain of 'Wave goodbye/Wish me well/I've become something else' gets the muttered-under-the-breath, parenthetical 'Just as well' as the guitars swarm back in. NIN explores broad tones laced with dark ironies—cracks and fissures that often give way to deeper darknesses.

It's this self-awareness that elevates NIN. For every plaintive or petulant wail, somewhere there's the sardonic undertone—the eyes that watch the destruction happen with intelligent detachment, understanding the conceptual and psychological complexity of some of these emotions and what's driving them; and the part that kind of likes it there in the darkness, and wants to explore that too. NIN is fascinated by all these destructive emotions and impulses. It understands how they're seductive. Which isn't to say that these emotions aren't really felt or they're all supposed to be ironic—the emotions always lead. But this sardonic sneer always makes itself felt when Reznor wants you to sense how fucked up things are—like he does in 'Capital G' or in 'Closer'. And blurring the lines between himself and some of these negative personas seems to be part of the project, too.

Conceptually, every NIN album positions itself somewhere along the axis of tension between self and destruction—from the self-annihilation of The Downward Spiral, to the explosive Broken EP which stabs you with its angry retaliatory shards, to the dystopia of Year Zero, which frames it in the context of the state and political power. And then there's Hesitation Marks, a dark, tentative, uncertain simmering behind a calm exterior, playing cautiously with positive emotions.

For me, though, the quintessential NIN album remains the most decadent one: The Fragile (1999)—a double-album that balances complexity and raw emotion, internal exploration and outward expression, and represents this tension in its most overt, naked state. Following on from the systematic self-destruction of The Downward Spiral, which concerned itself with the methodical rejection of all sources of meaning, this album starts at that point of nihilism and, in Reznor's own words, 'attempts to create order from chaos, but never reaches the goal.'

Like all NIN albums, The Fragile is characterised by explorations of negative feelings, but it's more introspective than confrontational. The swells of anger, rage, anxiety, and all that other fun stuff are treated with more subtlety and variety than previous efforts, temporarily offering softer, calmer reprieves. The expression of these emotions is simultaneously destructive and empowering, a kind of existential resistance to oblivion wrought by desperation: the album offers catharsis, but with the distinct feeling that there's something broken about this catharsis, something fragile and imperfect. It's an edifice crumbling even as it's being erected, feeding off an energy and madness that seeps through the cracks.

The experience is defined by instability. Every emotion is a struggle through a thousand distorted sounds. The instrumentation of The Fragile, predominantly piano, guitar and other string instruments, gives it an organic, baroque richness unlike anything else in NIN's catalogue; but these instruments, already imperfect, are all placed under that defining tension. There's an off-kilterness to every wail, every sneer, every tentative ukelele interlude or somehow ironic pseudo-military crunch. It's often heavy and sometimes oppressive, but Reznor never loses sight (or sound) of how the music works, even while exploring all the little ways he can make it very subtly not work.

I always liked The Fragile, and NIN generally, for what seemed to me like its non-specificity: while being very personal, it dealt with abstract, general emotions, universal feelings, and you could make it the soundtrack of anything where its tense energy would fit. It wasn't specific in a way that I'd find alienating; it didn't place these feelings in a specific neighbourhood in a life that wasn't mine. Rock critic Robert Christgau described NIN's later instrumental Ghosts I-IV as 'mental wallpaper', and while that's kind of derogatory and is definitely more suited to the thinner ambience of Ghosts than the heavier substance of The Fragile, in principle it's more or less the same idea: it's the sort of music you can make your own, plaster your walls with and inhabit as your mood or disposition deems fit.

Of course, what seems like non-specificity to me might still be alienating to other people, and obviously not everyone is going to be interested in a double album full of angry, conflicted manfeels. It also, culturally, gravitates to wherever these emotions can be the least bit validated or exploited, from hormonal teens, to clueless macho types who pick up on the aggression but not the self-loathing, to the movie people who want to sell dreck like 300 and use it in their trailers because it's dark, edgy and exciting. But for those who listen, an album like The Fragile offers a complicated release: catharsis through human imperfection, and the exhilarating freedom of structural instability, forming precarious spires and seas that last only as long as the emotions they're built from.

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