The Fragile is the most underrated album and yet also the focal point of Nine Inch Nails’ career thus far. The band’s discography can be divided into two periods: before The Fragile and after. Before, the band had burst onto the scene with furious, ear-bending, industrial metal, eventually launching the genre into the mainstream with The Downward Spiral. Afterwards, you have Trent Reznor’s road to sobriety, experimental releases, expansion of his sound into new textures, film scores and Oscar wins. And yet, regardless of Nine Inch Nails’ further success in the ‘00s, it’s The Fragile whose reputation has grown the most over time. What is it about this album that keeps us coming back, 20 years later?

Well, it’s no surprise why people anticipated the record back in 1999. The Downward Spiral, on the back of “Closer,” turned Nine Inch Nails into an arena act practically overnight. A legendary performance at Woodstock ’94 and a co-headlining tour with David Bowie ratcheted up the global attention. Reznor fell into addiction as the pressure for a follow-up reached fever pitch. Plus, the death of Reznor’s grandmother deeply shook him.

All these experiences are fed into The Fragile, a nearly two-hour tome that dove into themes of isolation, deterioration and things falling apart. Due to its timestamp and subject matter, the album drew comparisons to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But part of the length came from Reznor’s writer’s block, generated by a fear of failing to deliver a sequel worthy of The Downward Spiral. Even the album cover shows the Nine Inch Nails logo being partially overwhelmed in a sea of red. However, listening to The Fragile today, it’s clear that despite some misses, the record stands as one of the strongest and most unique in Reznor’s body of work.

The first disc is near flawless, starting with the taut, frayed build of “Somewhat Damaged,” which erupts with pure fury and betrayal. “The Wretched” is all huge-sounding drums, sinister keys and Reznor’s snarling vocals. When the chorus hits, it’s strong enough to flatten a mountain. “We’re in This Together” is a mini-epic, moving from a noise collage to a staccato guitar riff to one of the catchiest choruses the band’s ever released, before fading to a drone-and-piano conclusion. “Even Deeper” hits with a sharp percussive groove. “No, You Don’t” is pure id and rage.

While there is a lot of anger here, this is a record built on despair as well. The title track is all desperation. “The Day the World Went Away” stands out as one of Reznor’s overall best pieces of music, its swarming guitars filtering Reznor’s pain over his grandmother’s passing. “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally” covers the same topic, from an even bleaker perspective: “I’ve done all I can do/ Could I please come with you?/ Sweet smell of sunshine/ I remember sometimes.

While The Fragile may be one of the darkest albums Nine Inch Nails ever released, it’s also one of the strangest, with Reznor stretching his sound much further than he had up to this point. “La Mer” starts with the type of broken, repeating piano melody that usually builds into a standard industrial tune. But here, it takes a swerve into a jazzy bass-and-drum pattern with French female vocals. “Into The Void” takes that song’s bones and turns it into a single that should’ve been as big as “Closer.” “Complication” buzzes with a dance-punk riff. “Pilgrimage” sounds like a triumphant rally for the victors of a post-apocalyptic society.

But some of the best instrumentals on the album point the way towards Reznor’s score work with Atticus Ross. “The Frail” could be a precursor to “Hand Covers Bruise” from The Social Network. “Just Like You Imagined” is overflowing with creativity, its keyboard melody building into a pummeling groove, layering on synths that sound like brass, distorted guitars, classical piano and digital glitches. It’s the type of song that will blow your mind again and again.

Admittedly, the second disc of The Fragile is a bit weaker, due to a few filler tracks that repeat ideas found elsewhere on the album. There’s no need to listen to “Where Is Everybody?,” “Underneath It All” or “Ripe (With Decay)” more than once. Your mileage may vary on the possessive agony of “Please” or the at-times cringeworthy celebrity takedown of “Starfuckers, Inc.”

These songs still offer a window into Reznor’s state of mind at the time. He recorded most of The Fragile on the precipice, one he fell off while touring the album. But he recovered and rehabilitated himself into the no-longer-quite-so-tortured artistic genius we know today. Nine Inch Nails continues to create and innovate, with its latest release, Bad Witch, going further afield than any LP since The Fragile. More than nearly any of his albums, this sprawling, intense record set Reznor’s creative and personal life to where it is today. For that alone, it has earned its place in history.

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