AS ANY LISTENER will note, Nine Inch Nails has always been about the basics: intense anger, self-loathing, and recrimination against God and all humanity. Our music editor asks if NIN, when you get right down to it, isn't really just "junior-year death poetry." Sure it is -- in a lyrical sense. From 1989's Pretty Hate Machine to 1999's The Fragile, Trent Reznor has always been whining about his semi-suicidal, pitiable soul. But 10 years ago, after the release of Pretty Hate Machine, I was an angry young woman, stuck in the self-induced misery of grad school, along with a cohort of similarly embittered souls. That we took immense pleasure in songs like "Head Like a Hole" and "Terrible Lie" should come as no surprise; after all, we were just discovering that the promise of employment was simply another deceit in our years of over-education. So lyrics like "God Money, I'll do anything for you," and "Why am I seething with this animosity?" touched a special place in our souls.

But there was far more to NIN's appeal than the lyrics. It was the music -- that combination of all-or-nothing, deeply felt vocals and frenetic, hard-driving instrument samples -- that provided a truly exhilarating catharsis.

So I fell -- I snatched up everything Trent released; every import, remix, collaboration, and soundtrack song. But the music turned more and more "industrial." I was disappointed in the obtuse, layered noise of 1994's The Downward Spiral. It came too close to its title, with only a few bursts of clarity, like "Closer." When I first heard "I wanna f... [bleep!] you like an animal" on the End, I nearly crashed my car laughing. Trent had become so revered that even his radio-unfriendly songs got airplay.

Why do people feel so deeply personal about NIN? And why doesn't this music connect with me the way it used to? Am I just too damn old? Then again, Trent himself is only a couple years younger than me. Maybe I just don't feel the immediacy of the anger anymore; I'm still bitter, sure, but I no longer feel like screaming "fuck you!" at the world. And all that sin and salvation stuff just feels like the familiar, boring ruminations of your garden-variety lapsed Catholic.

Yet, after determining that I would write at least a slightly scathing review of The Fragile, I listened to it once more. While I can find much to criticize in this album, there are many gems. At first, when I read those all-too-familiar lyrics like "Stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss/And it's hard to believe it could come down to this," I thought, okay -- this is really getting old. Then I realized that, sadly, these songs still resonate with a lot of people, including myself to some degree.

Most surprisingly, for the first time, Trent seems to express a bit of... love. I don't know whether he's actually in love at the moment, reflecting on past moments of bliss, or simply engaging in wishful daydreams, but lines like "None of them can stop us now.../You're the queen and I'm the king/Nothing else means anything" seem to belie Trent's hallowed lone-soul image.

On the whole, The Fragile is a frustrating mix. Many critics have already alluded to the record as a "concept album" (along the lines of Pink Floyd), which must be listened to in its nearly two-hour, sequential entirety. I disagree; I found myself frequently bored with the clichés, and wanting to repeat those tracks that were truly innovative.

The question remains whether Trent might have done better. The truth is that the latest NIN album could have been absolute shit, and still scaled the charts. That Trent knew this and still bothered to put any effort into this record is to his credit. Yet I am still vaguely unsatisfied with The Fragile, as it seems to tease and tantalize with the promise of something new, without really delivering in the end. On Broken's "Wish," Trent sings, "You know me; I hate everyone." Now, seven years later, he says, "And you know me/(Well you think you do).../And in a dream I'm a different me.../And for once in my life I feel complete -- /And I still want to ruin it." Sometimes I just wish that Trent would try not ruining it, for once.

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