Content Warning: mentions suicide.
There is no coherent way to describe the Nine Inch Nails (NIN) album The Fragile, the third studio album from the Trent Reznor-led industrial band. Some moments transcend an attack on the senses; they tear them to shreds and leave you scrambling to retrieve the remains. Other times you are sucked into deeply moving ballads of gentle but disconcerting piano, white noise synth and looming guitar. This is an intense listening experience even for long-time fans of the band. The standard release weighs in at 23 songs, an hour and three-quarters of your life that are spent reeling in something of a void.
Reznor had already established himself as something of a genius soundman with 1994’s The Downward Spiral, but The Fragile confirmed NIN as orchestral masters of metal. The dizzying variety and acute organisation of the sounds, coupled with jarring contrasts between and even within tracks, could easily have come out a mess. Instead, it is a disturbing but controlled delve into the darkness that draws influences from wherever it can find them, a more meaningful and hypnotic musical odyssey than NIN’s contemporaries such as Marilyn Manson or Ministry were producing at the time.
The album’s screams of agony and loneliness are far more than brooding for its own sake. The biography of a musician irrefutably affects the way that a piece of music (or more broadly, art) is viewed. Reznor has talked frankly about his volatile battles with depression, anxiety and substance abuse in the build-up to the album, during its formation and during the subsequent tour. In 2009, Reznor told a crowd that “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 some music. Some of which wound up on The Fragile. But what I was really doing was trying to kill myself.” In 2000, during the album’s tour, Reznor survived a heroin overdose. He went to rehab and got completely sober a year later.
Such a story suddenly influences how The Fragile is read. The tracks are repeated expressions of brokenness and frustrated desperation. Listening to ‘The Wretched’, the fourth track on the album, you hear Reznor’s tortured vocals let out “the hopes and prays, the better days, the far aways, forget it.” Similarly, on ‘The Way Out is Through’, he screams “underneath it all, we feel so small, the heavens fall, but still we crawl.” The title track sees Reznor exclaim that “it’s just that nothing seems worth saving” and “if I could fix myself I’d – but it’s too late for me.” These images of hopelessness, weakness and isolation are repeated throughout the album. In combination with the industrial, prog rock immersion of the music, these lyrics are a testament to Reznor’s shocking self-destruction. It’s almost uncomfortable to sing the album’s praises.
What does such an album amount to? This is Reznor singing what he cannot say, and letting out in a recording studio and writing down on paper what he didn’t open up about in person. The Fragile is Reznor’s cry for help (he wrote the vast majority of the album’s material). As the album approaches its 20th anniversary and following its re-release on vinyl last year, the conversations about men’s mental health have opened up considerably. Those with the personal demons and struggles that so nearly claimed Reznor’s life are finally being encouraged to come forward and talk openly in the hope of saving them from tipping over the edge. While there is still much to do, a lot has changed from twenty years ago. The Fragile can stand as a monument to self-expression and an indication of how things have moved forward.
During their Mental Health and Wellbeing Week, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association is working to make these necessary conversations easier to have. They are aiming to prevent students and staff reaching the lows that people like Reznor experienced but also to emphasise where help can be found if it does get to that stage (as fleeting as such help can seem at times). Among these events are a workshop on Microaggressions and Mental Health and a discussion of Healthy Conversations on Student Mental Health. On Monday 12 November, there is also a panel on Masculinity and Men’s Mental health being run by Sexpression Edinburgh, described on the Students’ Association’s website as “an interactive session exploring men’s mental health and the impact that masculinity can have on men’s experiences and their ability to discuss them.”
The importance of such a session cannot be stressed enough. A historically-rooted stereotype of men not discussing their emotional well-being and their mental health, coupled with external pressures of conforming to certain ideals of masculinity and what a ‘man’ is, leads too many down a fatal path. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Not cancer, not crime, but the decision to take one’s own life. The need for open conversations has never been more widely recognised. Lives are at stake.
This kind of support was not present, or at least less visible, than when people like Reznor hit their low points. He came through, but it could easily have been different. His emotional state resulted in an album that boasts incredible presence and which lingers in your mind for an age afterwards, but at what cost?
NIN’s The Fragile is as open an expression of mental health struggles as you will find in music (especially metal, with its gender disparities and particular visions of masculinity well documented by now). It is also, however, an expression that opts to scream in isolation rather than seek out company, and which shouts rather than talks. What can be a battle for emotional wellbeing is ferociously fought and to this, The Fragile is something of an illustrative war mural. Unlike the making of The Fragile though, this fight should not be fought alone.
Sexpression Edinburgh’s event ‘Masculinity and Men’s Mental Health’ takes place on Monday 12 November from 7 pm in Room G.06, 50 George Square. The event is free and non-ticketed. More information is available on the Students’ Association’s website.
Image Credit: Contraluz via Wikimedia Commons