Album Review: Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile: Deviations 1

Two hours and thirty minutes worth of Nine Inch Nails is a lot of Nine Inch Nails.

Two hours and thirty minutes is, like, the standard running time of most comic book-inspired super hero movies; it also happens to be the running time of the sprawling, 36 song deconstruction of Nine Inch Nail’s 1999 opus, The Fragile.

Dubbed The Fragile: Deviations 1, the effort finds Trent Reznor and his best bro Atticus Ross adding 13 tracks to the album’s sequencing—some of which were included on the original vinyl or cassette editions of the album, some of which are newly constructed for this reissue, sourced from material recorded during The Fragile’s arduous, long gestating sessions.

With Deviations, Reznor giveth, but he also taketh away: from the album’s original 23 songs, he’s removed all of his vocals, creating two hours and thirty minutes of instrumental tracks.

Why would someone do that?

According to the press release regarding this reissue, as well as additional Nine Inch Nails albums being remastered and reissued on vinyl, Deviations creates a “complimentary, but different picture.”

It’s common knowledge that The Fragile was written and recorded during a horribly tumultuous time in Reznor’s life. Struggling with growing substance abuse issues, depression, and the death of his grandmother, he gave serious thought to suicide during the writing process before the album started to take shape.

 “…Revisiting [The Fragile] has become a form of therapy for me,” Reznor said in the same press release. “As an experiment, I removed all the vocals from the record and found it became a truly changed experience that worked on a different yet compelling level.”

The experiment results in a listening experience that is an exercise in patience—something intended for only the most serious of Nine Inch Nails fans.

I recently read something—a review, or a thinkpiece, probably, that said when you talk about nostalgia and music, there are two ways to shape it: you said, “I listened to that when I was growing up,” or, you say “I used to listen to that in high school.” One implies you’ve taken it with you, the other implies you grew out of it.

I don’t want to say I started Anhedonic Headphones so I could write a Nine Inch Nails thinkpiece, but in 2012, before I quit my radio show (but after I knew I was going to) I started thinking about music writing, and starting this blog. One of the very first things I gave thought to was writing something nostalgic about Nine Inch Nails, and the importance The Downward Spiral had in my young life. I even went so far as to buy new copies of both that and The Fragile so I could revisit both of them accurately and write about them.

I realized then that Nine Inch Nails was something “I used to listen to in high school.” It’s not the kind of music that aged with me, but it was interesting to dip back into it for nostalgia’s sake; and to an extent, it still is.

But that doesn’t mean I can sit through two hours and thirty minutes of an instrumental version of an album I loved when I was 16. And I’m not sure who could.

Like, in 2016, who likes The Fragile that much?

What listening to an instrumental version of an album you know pretty well does is it makes you hyper aware of the music—every guitar chug, every kick drum punch, every synthesizer squall. I guess that’s, like, one of the good or at least interesting things about Deviations. It’s a gigantic and rich sounding record—probably thanks in part to the remixing for this reissue, and 18 years later, this thing still sounds like a million bucks, and it should—Reznor labored over it for two years, dumping Interscope’s money into to create a double album, only to have it be considered a commercial flop.

Jokingly, you could call this a karaoke version of The Fragile, but I understand that it is supposed to be taken more seriously than that. However, it is very disorienting to sit through and listen to this whole thing with one integral piece missing.

Take the album’s opening track, “Somewhat Damaged,” for example. I love this song—I still do, 18 years after the fact. After the ghostly, distended acoustic plunking intro, the song kicks in, and you are expecting Reznor to drop the song’s opening lyric.

But it never happens.

The music of Nine Inch Nails isn’t very human sounding, is it? I mean, compressed and pummeling drums, walls of distorted and effected guitars, and mountains of synthesizers, keyboards, and various other sounds—it’s hard to wrap your head around how people made this music happen. It was always Reznor’s voice that grounded the music of Nine Inch Nails. Hearing his angsty caterwaul was a reminder that behind the stacks of noise, there was at least one person calling the shots.

But here, save for a few tracks of wordless singing scattered throughout, that human quality has been scrubbed away.

It’s not like instrumental compositions is a new idea for Reznor and Nine Inch Nails; there were always instrumental segues here and there, and he’s made quite a name for himself for the last six years as an award-winning composer of film scores. And I mean, one of the most interesting moments from the original edition of The Fragile, “La Mer,” is instrumental.

But I just don’t understand why this has been done to the entire album.

In the press release, Reznor refers to this entire thing as an experiment. Even its roll out is experimental too—announced at the end of December, The Fragile: Deviations 1 is only available as an $80 4xLP set that is available to pre-order.

Slated to be pressed and then shipped sometime in the spring, after that, it is done—only existing on the turntables of true Nine Inch Nails fans that were willing to plunk down $80 for this. Or, in my case, on the hard drive of a fairweather fan who downloaded a leaked copy of the mp3s that turned up online the day after the release had been announced.

Like many albums that I have muddled through as to write a review of, The Fragile: Deviations 1 is worth listening to at least once. If you are a die-hard Nine Inch Nails fan, then you won’t even bat an eyelash at the cost of this, and will probably spin this on your turntable countless times—replacing Reznor’s voice with your own, angrily belting out the lyrics you have come to know so well over time.

For everybody else who “used to listen to this in high school,” returning to Nine Inch Nails and The Fragile is like digging out an old t-shirt you don’t wear all that often and trying it on. It may not fit the best anymore, and it may not be flattering on your adult body, but you have memories attached to it and there’s something about it that compels you to hang onto it even though it is relegated to a box in your closet.

The Fragile: Deviations 1, along with 'definitive versions' of The Fragile, The Downward Spiral, and Broken are all available to pre-order from the man himself.