You are led into a room, strapped into a chair, then left alone in the darkness. Slowly, the room begins to fill with sound. At first, it's just a trickle, the anxious scratching of a few notes, but within moments you're washed away in a torrent of sound, as instruments jostle and scrape to force their way through the speakers.
And with the music's flow come the voices -- whispering, pleading, howling, cajoling, pulling you down into the murky undercurrents of disquiet and despair. Listening to them is like being awash in another man's dreams, completely submerged in his anxieties and prayers. You end up so completely saturated that even after the music ebbs into silence, you're still moist with emotion.
That's what diving into the new Nine Inch Nails album is like.
NIN's last album, 1994's "The Downward Spiral," delivered a near-perfect blend of electronics and ennui, making the desperate clangor of industrial rock essential listening for millions of rock fans.
No surprise, then, that its follow-up, "The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope Halo 14, arriving in stores today), is one of the most anxiously anticipated albums of the fall.
But even though the album is certain to top the Billboard charts, this double-CD set is by no means typical pop product.
It's long, for one thing, with 23 songs spread across 100 minutes of playing time. Moreover, it's meant to be listened to at length, with songs bleeding into one another so naturally that the album progresses almost symphonically, with each selection seeming like individual movements within a larger work.
And its relentless focus on the darker side of human existence is unlikely to earn many of these songs a place in the hit parade. Other acts wrestle with problems of love and romance; Nine Inch Nails instead offers existential struggles against meaninglessness itself. "Please," for example, is about facing an emptiness so profound it feels like there will "Never be enough/To fill me up."
That's not to say NIN is without its romantic side. The title tune tells the tale of a man who refuses to let his love fall apart the way he has, and "We're in This Together" describes a devotion so deep that it transcends all other concerns. "You're the queen and I'm the king," goes the final couplet. "Nothing else means anything."
Still, even these relatively uplifting songs are not models of health and happiness. Why, then, would any music fan want to plumb such murky depths?
Because the sound is incredible.
No one in popular music today creates soundscapes as vivid and otherworldly as Trent Reznor, the singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist who more or less is Nine Inch Nails. Like the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson or avant-garde rocker Brian Eno, Reznor revels in the ways the recording process can create its own acoustic reality.
Rather than limit himself to sounds possible in the real world, Reznor uses electronic processing and digital editing to alter and distort the instruments he uses, stretching and squeezing the sound like so much silly putty. And Reznor makes each aural detail count using the control this technology affords him.
"The Wretched," for instance, lives up to its title before so much as a word is uttered, in large part because the music is just as emotionally articulate as the lyrics. In fact, Reznor buries the vocal at first, letting the relentless thump of bass and distorted drums build momentum over an increasingly ominous set of riffs. Tension builds as Reznor's half-whisper repeatedly goads, "It didn't turn out the way you wanted it to," until the chorus explodes in a cacophony of fuzz guitar, shrieking strings and martial drums.
"This is what it feels like," Reznor sings, and the music makes his emotion palpable.
Yet no matter how dark the problems Reznor wrestles with may appear on the printed page, what it feels like between the speakers is oddly exhilarating. It helps that he grounds his songs with a vigorous, danceable pulse and makes frequent use of tension-and-release arrangements. But there's also a genuine aural opulence to this album, a richness of sound and texture that makes the music easy to get lost in.
Some songs are startlingly exotic. "Into the Void," for instance, opens with a cello sighing mournfully over what sounds like a blend of Gambian shakers and Indonesian gamelan, before cutting loose with a funky synth bass. Others offer surprising complexity, such as "La Mer," which syncs a dreamy waltz-time piano pattern with a driving 4/4 funk pulse.
"The Fragile" never falters. It may be sprawlingly ambitious, even by double-album standards, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a squandered second anywhere in its 100 minutes. What you will find is music so powerful and entrancing that you'll have a hard time tearing yourself away.
Nine Inch Nails
"The Fragile" (Nothing/Interscope Halo 14)
Sun score: ****
Pub Date: 9/21/99