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Music / The Fragile (1999)

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I'd listen to the words he'd say,
but in his voice, I heard decay.

"The clouds will part and the sky cracks open,
and God himself will reach his fucking arm through
just to push you down."
"The Wretched"

The Fragile is the third studio album by American rock band Nine Inch Nails, released through Nothing Records and Interscope Records on September 21, 1999. The album was recorded at Trent Reznor's Nothing Studios in New Orleans, taking over two years to make.

The album was reportedly intended by Reznor to be a conceptual sequel to the band's previous album The Downward Spiral from the perspective of that album's protagonist. The music and lyrics explore the protagonist's internal turmoil in his attempts to find stability and build back up from the dark place he's in emotionally and existentially.

In terms of sound, the album differs a great deal from Spiral by largely forgoing distorted and gritty sounds in favor of a more eclectic, art rock-styled approach. It's also, to date, one of the band's only two multi-disc studio albumsnote  (the other being Ghosts I-IV), with its CD release split into "left" and "right" discs around 50 minutes each in length (totaling at 104 minutes, about 39 longer than Spiral). As a result, the album's additional time lends a slower pace, with its tracks focusing more on somber progression than the raw energy of its predecessor.

Although The Fragile reached #1 on the Billboard 200 chart on release and has since been certified double platinum, it didn't perform as well as Spiral, which was attributed to its different sound and insufficient promotion from Interscope Records. Around a year after release, the album (like its predecessor) received a remix album titled Things Falling Apart, which featured a cover of the Gary Numan song "Metal", as well as new tracks such as "10 Miles High" and "The Great Collapse".

In 2016, as part of the band's campaign to release all of their albums on vinyl, the band released a special four-LP version of the album called The Fragile: Deviations 1, which contains altered or instrumental formats of all of the songs combined with new songs written during the recording of the album.

Not to be confused with the Yes album Fragile.


Left Disc
  1. "Somewhat Damaged" (4:31)
  2. "The Day the World Went Away" (4:33)
  3. "The Frail" (1:54)
  4. "The Wretched" (5:25)
  5. "We're In This Together" (7:16)
  6. "The Fragile" (4:35)
  7. "Just Like You Imagined" (3:49)
  8. "Even Deeper" (5:48)
  9. "Pilgrimage" (3:31)
  10. "No, You Don't" (3:35)
  11. "La Mer" (4:37)
  12. "The Great Below" (5:17)

Right Disc

  1. "The Way Out is Through" (4:17)
  2. "Into The Void" (4:49)
  3. "Where Is Everybody?" (5:40)
  4. "The Mark Has Been Made" (5:15)
  5. "Please" (3:30)
  6. "Starfuckers, Inc." (5:00)
  7. "Complication" (2:30)
  8. "I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally" (4:13)
  9. "The Big Come Down" (4:12)
  10. "Underneath It All" (2:46)
  11. "Ripe (With Decay)" (6:34)


  1. "The New Flesh" (3:40)note 
  2. "Ten Miles High" (5:13)note 
  3. "+Appendage" (2:44)note 
  4. "Missing Places" (1:26)note 
  5. "The March" (3:42)note 
  6. "One Way To Get There" (2:44)note 
  7. "Taken" (3:35)note 
  8. "Not What It Seems Like" (3:30)note 
  9. "White Mask" (3:22)note 
  10. "Was It Worth It?" (5:03)note 
  11. "Can I Stay Here?" (4:25)note 
  12. "Hello, Everything Is Not Okay" (5:16) [AKA "Ten Miles High (Instrumental)"]note 
  13. "Feeders" (2:02)note 
  14. "Claustrophobia Machine (Raw)note 
  15. "Last Heard From"note 


  • Trent Reznor: Vocals, nearly all instruments
  • Danny Lohner: Drum programming, ambience
  • Charlie Clouser: Programming, synthesisers
  • Adrian Belew: Guitars
  • Mike Garson: Piano

But in his voice, I heard tropes:

  • Album Title Drop: Almost; the Title Track uses the word "fragile" but not the phrase "the fragile".
  • Arc Words:
    • The phrase "nothing can stop me now" from The Downward Spiral appears again on this album in a much more optimistic context.
    • A variation of the line "and all that could have been" appears in both "The Wretched" and "The Great Below". This line later ended up being the title of both a live album and a song on its companion studio compilation Still, both released three years after The Fragile.
    • The line "I can still feel you" appears on "The Great Below" and "Underneath It All", both of which are the last vocal tracks of their respective sides.
    • "Slipping away" is said in both the title track and "Into The Void".
  • Boléro Effect: Used to great effect in "Somewhat Damaged" and "Just Like You Imagined".
  • Bowdlerise: The promotional radio edit of "Starfuckers, Inc." is called "Starsuckers, Inc.", and censors every swear (aside from the word "whore") as well as the words "suck you" and "taste" (in the context of fellatio). It additionally replaces the song's non-explicit bridge entirely, although this was more for legal reasons, since it heavily interpolated "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon without permission.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: "Starfuckers, Inc." has Trent speaking to the listener directly at the end of the bridge.
    I bet you think this song is about you, don't you?
  • Call-Back: "The Wretched" contains the line: "Back at the beginning / Sinking, spinning...", while "The Big Come Down" contains the lines: "Got to get back to the bottom / Try to get back to where I'm from / The closer I get, the worse it becomes...", in which may be a reference to the title of the previous album The Downward Spiral.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Starfuckers, Inc." and, to a lesser extent, "Somewhat Damaged" (the majority of the swearing in the latter is concentrated in the "too fucked up to care anymore" part). There is little swearing elsewhere on the album.
  • Concept Album: According to an interview Trent gave, the album was intended as a continuation of its predecessor in which the protagonist goes from seeking happiness (left side) to losing their hope and winding up right back where they started (right side). Although the connection isn't too explicit in the lyrics, they do consistently depict underlying themes of decay, brokenness, depression, and trying to re-assemble one's life.
  • Darker and Edgier: Zig-zagged. It has more Lighter and Softer moments than The Downward Spiral, but with its cyclical nature and Downer Ending, it ultimately winds up being arguably just as dark overall as its predecessor.
  • Declaration of Protection: "The Fragile", from the perspective of someone vowing to preserve the purity of a girl who "shines in a world full of ugliness", believing that they're the only person who sees her beauty.
    I won't let you fall apart.
  • Downer Ending: The album's narrative ends with the protagonist failing to find happiness and returning to their original feelings at the bottom of the downward spiral, which is expressed in the lyrics of the album's last few songs before its incredibly dark instrumental finale "Ripe (With Decay)". As described by Trent:
    "I wanted this album to sound like there was something inherently flawed in the situation, like someone struggling to put the pieces together. Downward Spiral was about peeling off layers and arriving at a naked, ugly end. This album starts at the end, then attempts to create order from chaos, but never reaches the goal. It’s probably a bleaker album because it arrives back where it starts—[with] the same emotion."
  • Driven to Suicide: Suicidal ideation is heavily implied in the lyrics to "La Mer", obscured only by the fact that it's in a foreign language. As it would turn out, the sentiment had real-life parallels, as Trent went on record ten years later stating that he wrote it when he was just a hair's length away from taking his own life.
    "About 10 years ago or so, I locked myself away in a house on the ocean, and I tried to... I said I was trying to write music. Some of which wound up on The Fragile. But what I was really doing was trying to kill myself. And the whole time I was away by myself, I managed to write one song, which is this song. So when I play it, I feel pretty weird about it, because it takes me back to a pretty dark and awful time in my life. It's weird to think how different things are now: I'm still alive, I haven't died yet. And I'm afraid to go back to that place because it feels kind of haunted to me, but I'm going to go back. I'm going to get married there."
  • Epic Rocking: Eight of the 23 tracks are over 5 minutes long, with two of these being over six minutes. The longest track, "We're In This Together", clocks in at 7:16.
  • Fading into the Next Song: Most of the album's songs segue into one another, with the only notable exception being between "The Great Below" and "The Way Out is Through", the tracks that set the two discs apart.
  • Gratuitous French: The lyrics of "La Mer" are in Creole French.
  • Hidden Track: A strange case with the CD version. The pregap between "The Mark Has Been Made" and "Please" features the first forty seconds or so of "10 Miles High" before transitioning to "Please". The full song in included on the vinyl edition, the remastered version of the album, and one of the "We're in This Together" singles.
  • Hope Spot: "We're In This Together" and the Title Track see the protagonist finding some reprieve in the form of a relationship with a female, and seemingly discovering an opportunity to improve...only for the next song "Just Like You Imagined" to seemingly imply their dissolution, with the subsequent "Even Deeper" showing the protagonist falling back down from their high.
    When I think I can overcome,
    it runs even deeper.
  • Icarus Allusion: In "Somewhat Damaged:"
    Flew too high and burnt the wing
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The double-CD release of the album is split across "Left" and "Right" discs, reflecting their placement in the album's digipak packaging. The triple-LP and double-cassette releases, meanwhile, simply opt for standard numbering and lettering.
  • Instrumental: "The Frail", "Pilgrimage", "The Mark Has Been Made", "Complication", "Ripe (With Decay)".
  • Jump Scare: "The Day the World Went Away" starts aggressive, has a quiet midsection, and then suddenly bursts right back into the noisiness for its climactic ending.
  • Lighter and Softer: Zig-zagged. The album has far more quiet tracks and moments of beauty than The Downward Spiral, but is still very dark.
  • Limited Lyrics Song: "The Way Out Is Through" in particular, though the whole album qualifies. Trent had this to say about it:
    "The Fragile was an album based a lot in fear, because I was afraid as fuck about what was happening to me ... That's why there aren't a lot of lyrics on that record. I couldn't fucking think. An unimaginable amount of effort went into that record in a very unfocused way."
  • Lonely Piano Piece: "The Frail" is a desolate, somber piano-led instrumental.
  • Loudness War: The album marked a substantial increase in NIN's participation in this trope, particularly as compared to The Downward Spiral. It still has dynamics in the quiet parts, but when it gets loud, it gets loud.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "The Frail" is far away the album's shortest track, and one of the shorter ones across the NIN discography, coming in at just under 2 minutes in length.
  • Mood Motif: The riff that opens the very first track on the album, "Somewhat Damaged", later reappears in "La Mer" and "Into the Void", both times as a slightly different rendition both rhythmically and in key. These three are some of the darkest songs on the album.
  • New Sound Album: The Fragile features more industrial and experimental elements and is a little less heavy than The Downward Spiral.
  • Progressive Instrumentation: "Somewhat Damaged" begins with just an acoustic guitar, then comes in with synths and drums, then introduces the vocals, and then explodes with several layers of distorted electric guitar.
  • Questioning Title?: "Where Is Everybody?", "Was It Worth It?", and "Can I Stay Here?" (the latter two from Deviations 1).
  • Rearrange the Song: "The Fragile" builds on the melody introduced in "The Frail" in a somewhat more upbeat context.
  • Recurring Riff:
    • "The Frail" and the chorus of "The Fragile" share a melody.
    • See Mood Motif above.
    • "La Mer" and "Into the Void" also share similar percussion-based intros.
  • Revised Ending: The vinyl version of "Ripe" cuts everything after piano solo (including the ending referred to as "Decay") and instead reprises the main riff on a loop that slowly fades away.
  • Sanity Slippage: It's prominent throughout the whole album, but it arguably shows itself best in "Into The Void".
    Tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away...
  • Shout-Out: One lyric in "We're In This Together" ("You're the queen and I'm the king") is one to David Bowie's "Heroes" from the album of the same name; Reznor credits Bowie as being one of his biggest influences.
  • Siamese Twin Songs: "The Frail" and "The Wretched" are considered inseparable because "The Frail" is a Lonely Piano Piece that segues into "The Wretched", a track with a prominent piano riff. They are usually played live this way.
  • Subdued Section: "The Day the World Went Away" has one sandwiched between two sections driven by loud, distorted guitar.
  • Suicide by Sea: One possible reading of both "La Mer" and "The Great Below", which appear back-to-back. It has been suggested that Trent's original plan was to have a female vocalist sing the climactic part of the song, but for whatever reason, this didn't end up happening.
  • Textless Album Cover: The band's logo is the only text appearing on the cover of the album, and even then half of it is cut off by the lower photo.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Starfuckers, Inc."
  • Title Track: "The Fragile". Although the exact title doesn't appear, the word "fragile" appears in the lyrics.
  • Understatement: "Somewhat Damaged" is about a guy who's a lot more damaged than "somewhat".

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

Nothing can stop me now.