Into the Void | Trent Reznor’s 1999 Project Takes Us to the Bottom of Spiral Started On His Last Album
Reznor created an ode to darkness on The Downward Spiral. His prowess for creating horrific sounds and somehow bringing beauty to these moments made his sophomore outing what it was.
Post Spiral, Reznor’s flirt with self-destruction lyrically began to become more of a reality in the years following. The death of his maternal grandmother (who raised him after his parents split when he was 5), fall out with Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, and Tori Amos, and an ever-increasing drug addiction had placed Trent at one of his lowest points.
“The party left except for me, and then I was supposed to do my real work. … Then I decided I didn’t want to go [to a psychiatrist] anymore. I turned a corner and I didn’t need someone chewing at me to do things I didn’t feel were right for me, like medication. I don’t want to fuck with that. But that whole procedure made me realize I didn’t like myself anymore and that I had to come to terms with certain things. lt just took me time to sit down and change my head and my life around. I had to slap myself in the face: ‘If you want to kill yourself, do it, save everybody the fucking hassle. Or get your shit together.’ I thought Big Sur would be a nice break. It was sheer terror. Isolation on the side of a mountain, an hour from the nearest grocery store. I really didn’t want to be by myself. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
What came from this process of self-reflection, depression, pain, and eventual climb out of the void was the double album follow-up, The Fragile.
The album takes more of an ambient tone despite its industrial-driven rage. I have to shout out Youtube content creator, and musician Ixi for her fantastic dive into this record's music theory and sonic textures and other Nine Inch Nails works. It has given me a whole new respect and love for his work.
I will start with the album's first half (the Left side).
The album opens on the guitar-driven “Somewhat Damaged.” The opening climbing acoustic guitar melody has a very bluesy edge to it. All this builds into Reznor’s trademark industrial sound. This is the start of our fall. Trent’s rage points to his shortcomings compared to those around him, “So impressed with all you do/ Tried so hard to be like you/ Flew too high and burnt the wing/ Lost my faith in everything.” The tearing pull of “Broken bruised forgotten sore/ Too fucked up to care anymore,” sinks us deep into apathy over the perceived detestable existence he has to others.
The lead single off the project is “The Day the World Went Away.” Despite the very heavy distorted guitar, the song opens with a feeling of rising upwards. This is only to be taken from under us and fall back into the distorted dissonance of acoustic guitar, synth hum, and bass. In these moments of falling hush is where we get the lyrical content. The words echo the hollowness he felt when his grandmother passed, “There is a place that still remains/ It eats the fear it eats the pain/ The sweetest price he’ll have to pay/ The day the whole world went away.”
Once the lyrical content ends, we explode back into torrents of guitar. This is our erasure of the world Trent once knew and the Dutch angle of the shattered world he’ll enter in the next track.
“The Frail” is a purely instrumental track that takes us into some of the sonic themes later set up by “La Mer.” Much as the title states, Reznor's piano melody is listless, never quite resolving on itself. Because of this, it feels brittle. You feel that at any moment, this ever-shrinking melody could break. The ending synth pad samples Trent’s vocals to give a sort of twisted beauty to this ever-crumbling world.
We transition seamlessly into the oppressive “The Wretched.” The very thick synth bass turns the gravity up on you. It pushes into the earth, only for you to get pummeled by the surge of electric guitars in the song’s chorus. We’re fully eclipsed by disdain and hopelessness.
This winding tension snaps at the refrain, “Now you know/ This is what it feels like.” It’s spits at you in its hatred. We point this hatred in all directions: others, God, and yourself.
Like an oncoming suction of severe depression, Trent succumbs to his mental fates at the end, “You can try to stop it, but it keeps on coming/ You can try to stop it but.”
“We’re In This Together” is one of the most lyrically hopeful tracks Reznor has written to date. The frenzied rush of the song is like an adrenaline fuel charge to pull this dystopian mindset together. Trent paints the image of two broken people fighting to make it through all hell that comes before them, “You and me/ We’re in this together now/ None of them can stop us now/ We will make it through somehow/ You and me if the world should break in two/ Until the very end of me/ Until the very end of you.” The seven-minute epic tapers out into a sort of variation of the “La Mer” theme that traces its path through the project.
“The Fragile” is yet another buoy of hope that cuts through the mire of the record. The percussion brings to mind the rhythmic rattling of chains as someone walks brokenly. This mirrors the woman’s state of mind in the song, “Fragile/ She doesn’t see her beauty/ She tries to get away/ Sometimes/ It’s just that nothing seems worth saving/ I can’t watch her slip away.”
We sort of bloom into a surge of driving guitar as Trent moves to save her in any way possible. Through the sometimes very nihilistic themes that flow through the project, it’s nice to see humanity rise back to the surface. “Just Like You Imagined” is yet another instrumental track on the record. We’re provided with a much more ambient opening that breaks into motion. The industrial sound is much more overtaken by synths and piano sections. The piano lines that run through cascade upwards and down in a jazz-infused motion. We ride forward like an uncontrollable train car, unable to steer through the obstacles in its way. The song ends with some stability as Reznor provides grounding piano melodies to ride into the next track.
“Even Deeper” takes a claustrophobic ambient approach to its production. The pulsing synth bass is a harbinger that looms heavily against the momentum of the drums and surge of guitar.
We drive into the depths of addiction that can’t seem to quell his hunger for something fulfilling, “Do you know how far this has gone?/ Just how damaged have I become?/ When I think I can overcome/ It runs even deeper.” The themes of a faltering relationship that begun in “The Fragile” appear to come to the epilogue here, “In a dream I’m a different me/ With a perfect you/ We fit perfectly/ And for once in my life I feel complete — / And I still want to ruin it.” The vertigo-inducing guitar lines and abstract atmosphere perfectly paint this sinking spiral into drug-induced destruction.
“The Pilgrimage” is our second instrumental track on the album. The sample of cheers against the industrial-charged metal feels like walking into Gladiator bit. It wants blood. The track never bites but instead seethes, waiting for its moment to strike.
Reznor adds a marching band to the end of the track. It just builds a thick tension. The cheering crowd, marching beat, and synth bass beckon us to ready for war and bloodshed.
“No, You Don’t” is a spit in the face of Marilyn Manson after the shattering of their friendship. The fuzzy guitar and furious drum beat are an absolute deluge of anger. The lines, “Teeth in the necks of everyone you know/ You can keep on sucking until the blood won’t flow/ When it starts to hurt it only helps it grow/ Taking all you need/ (But not this time)/ No, you don’t,” point clearly to parasitic leech-like cast he has placed Manson in.
“La Mer” is a sort of musical theme that haunts several songs on the album. This has to be one of my favorite songs on the album. The competing melodies from the piano, upright bass, and seemingly broken-sounding upright piano create a world both on its side and fully submerged in water.
This fractured world dissonance and abstraction is shattered by the driving drum line, synth buzz, and bass line. It becomes frantic and overwhelming like you cannot catch your breath. Reznor had rented a house off the ocean to write music in, but his real intent was contemplating suicide.
You hear this notion of wanting to dissolve into the sea as a form of death in the French Creole sung lines, “And when the day arrives/ I’ll become the sky/ And I’ll become the sea/ And the sea will come to kiss me/ For I am going/ Home/ Nothing can stop me now.” Sung by Denise Milfort, this adds a haunting whisper of suicide’s release among the chaos and friction of clashing melodies.
I highly recommend you watch Ixi’s video on the track to get a better understating of the track’s many sonic flavors.
The album's first half ends with the looming demise of “The Great Below.” The lust for death is painted by the ocean’s grip to drag you in. Everything is cast in slate grey from the malevolent ambiance of synths and strings. Again, fear-inducing yet gorgeous. In this track, I hear an almost inverted melody of “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral. It feels like a descent into our lowest point, “The currents have their say/ The time is drawing near/ Washes me away/ Makes me disappear/ I descend from grace/ In arms of undertow.”
This need for demise also seems to stem from the loss of his grandmother he’s suffered, “I can still feel you/ Even so far away.” Those final lines are either a call to this loss or to the humanity in himself that he so desperately is scratching to reach.
The second half of the album (the Right side) comprises 11 tracks.
“The Way Out is Through” takes its title from Reznor’s processing of his maternal grandmother’s death:
“The way that I couldn’t cope with [the death of his grandmother] was by not addressing it or having the courage to write anything. And it took that realization to turn it around and by writing about it and expressing, I felt better about it, I felt like I could see through it. The way out is through. That’s where the song title came from because I thought that the way out was skirting the issue and walking on the curb.”
Coming off the depths of the sorrow of “The Great Below,” Reznor seems to pull himself up to try and move forward. Still very much mentally and emotionally spent, Trent musters the strength to march on, “Underneath it all/ We feel so small/ The heavens fall/ But still we crawl.”
“Into the Void” is very much a sister song to “La Mer.” We open on the same sonic melodies heard in the other track. This wooden melody and synth violin line busts into a warped shroud of synth bass and ambient pulsing synth lines. It’s very metallic, like tense springs being pulled and plucked.
This brings more depth to the suicidal ideology only hinted at in “La Mer.” Trent’s words, “Tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away/ Talking to myself all the way to the station/ Pictures in my head of the final destination/ All lined up/ (All the ones that aren’t allowed to stay)/ Tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away,” provide a much more poignant look into the push of pull of Reznor’s fight with self-destruction and self-preservation.
“Where is Everybody?” has a bit funkier bass line that carries it forward. For all its abrasion and aggression, the song has an infectious hook to it. The song is an ode to being ostracized.
The sample of electronic buzz sounds like a disconnected phone adding to this lack of connection is described. Trent distills himself down to only the most rudimentary functions and emotions in this state, “Pleading and/ Needing and/ Bleeding and/ Breeding and/ Feeding/ Exceeding/ Where is everybody?” The repetition of these lines becomes monotonous, which is like his existence at this moment.
“The Mark Has Been Made” is yet another instrumental interlude, so to speak. The electric guitar drone over the breathing synth bass and mechanical beat bring to mind a dilapidated existence. This suddenly breaks into hammering bass and crunchy beat. It’s like you’re about to focus in on the real danger in this scenario. This ebbs to and fro from quiet to charged, only to slink away as the electric guitar melody chromatically descends.
We end with just a whisper of Reznor’s vocal, “I’m getting closer,” to call us forward to the next track. “Please” conjures up the colors of the album cover (reds, browns, and yellows), none of which feel clean or comforting. Sonically razor sharp with the bite of the buzzing bass and charged synths, it doesn’t capture me as readily as some of the other tracks on the album.
Lyrically, we seem to fall into the depths of drug addiction to escape the ever-growing void surrounding us, “Breathe, echoing the sound/ Time starts slowing down/ Sink until I drown/ (Please) I don’t ever want to make it stop…/ Never be enough/ To fill me up.” My only wish was that the bite was tearing or the darkness more seething.
“Starfuckers Inc.” is one of the more pointed tracks on the album. Reznor told Kerrang in 2005:
It was strange. I realised that the guys who beat me up in high-school were now in my audience. Money, fame, power — things I’d never had — those things are recipes for massive personality distortion. In my life I was standing on the edge of a cliff about to jump off because my brain wasn’t working. After The Downward Spiral I felt like I had to make the best record in the world but my addictions meant my head was packed with cotton. “Starfuckers, Inc.” doesn’t fit in with the rest of that record, but it came from bits of lyrics I’d written over a long period and was focused at Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love. I’m not saying I haven’t fallen prey to this at times, but I think in their environment your priorities can totally flip before you realise.
The title may, in fact, call back to the Tori Amos song “Professional Widow,” which in it itself is rumored to be a pointed jab at Courtney Love. Seeing as Love was the reason behind Amos and Reznor’s relationship fracturing, it adds another caustic slash toward Courtney.
Reznor continues the ever-oppressive pulse of the synth bass in the verses, only to blast us in a hailstorm of guitar work in the chorus. The first verse seems to be more pointed toward Manson, whereas the second guns for Love, “I sold my soul but don’t you dare call me a whore.”
We even get an interpolation of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” in the song’s bridge.
“Complicated” is yet another instrumental track. Here, the beat brings to mind the adrenaline-induced house sounds of tracks used in Run, Lola, Run. The stretched and bent guitar melodies provide a strong unease in our jettison forward. This is only exasperated by fuzzy synth and almost scream like samples in the background. You feel like you’re being chased and have to escape the ever-approaching terror.
All this emotion erodes by the end as everything but the subtle pulse of synth bass decays.
“I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally” again brings us up against personal loss. Reznor’s grandmother’s passing has pushed him to the thought of joining her in the afterlife.
The song is very sparse instrumentally. Aside from the bass line and abstract percussion, only ambient synths, strings, and occasional piano only quietly break this state. Trent rips open the wounds of loss fairly candidly, “Thought he had it all before they called his bluff/ Found out that his skin just wasn’t thick enough/ Wanted to go back to how it was before/ Thought he lost everything/ Then he lost a whole lot more.” The final opening lines, “I’ve done all I can do/ Could I please come with you?” a harrowing plea to erase this loss in any way possible.
“The Big Come Down” is a unique visceral blend of dance/electronic-inspired drums, industrial metal, and an off-kilter ambiance. Sonically, it’s like being grabbed, shaken, and screamed at. This abusive sound is squarely aimed at Reznor’s failure at solace and comfort in fatalism, “Bye bye oooh/ Got to get back to the bottom/ Bye bye oooh/ The big come down isn’t that what you wanted?/ Bye bye oooh/ Find a place with the failed and forgotten/ Bye bye oooh/ Isn’t that really what you wanted now?”
Our only moments of reprieve from Trent’s caustic cadence come in the chorus, which acts to only solidify are hopeless feelings of escape. Although wholly disjointed and abrasive, Reznor can still create infectious melodies and hooks through the assault.
The frenzied guitars and beats of “Underneath It All” give to mind drug use and escapism. Through this chaos, Reznor’s vocals ring cleanly through. The growing chorus lacks a lucidity that no matter how much he tries to escape into addiction, he can still feel what he is trying to run from.
In a way, this distorted view is an anchor to what he truly needs to confront, “Numb all through/ I can still feel you/ Hear your call/ Underneath it all/ Kill my brain/ Yet you still remain/ Crucified.” It’s a very effective take on the hopelessness of drug addiction.
We end out the project on the absolutely hollowed-out “Ripe (With Decay).” There is something oddly beautiful around the metallic friction with which Reznor constructs the opening melody.
Love the low drone of the bass darkens out the bottom half of the soundscape. This instrumental devolves into an almost jazzy chaotic piano improv as it progresses. It gives to mind a feeling of severe anxiety to the point of unraveling. Still, through all this darkness, there is something beautiful. It’s like watching a tornado cut across your point of view. It’s terrifying yet captivating. I find this to be a fantastic way to end out the scarred landscape of sound The Fragile leaves behind.
The Fragile is quite the body of work to follow up The Downward Spiral. I greatly appreciate the moments of instrumental beauty and chaos we incrementally get across both LPs.
Reznor does a fantastic job of both expanding upon and constantly honing his trademark dark industrial sound. Where Spiral is broken almost to the macabre, The Fragile is biting and bitter.
There is so much internal anger around death, depression, deceit, isolation, and addiction. There are but a few moments that don’t capture me as much as others, “Please” being one of these examples.
Overall, the record is a testament to Trent’s songwriting and artist skill. My favorites:
- “The Day The World Went Away”
- “We’re In This Together”
- “The Fragile”
- “La Mer”
- “The Great Below”
- “Into the Void”
- “The Big Come Down”
- “Underneath It All”
- “Ripe (With Decay)”
My overall rating: 8.5 out of 10.
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