TRENT REZNOR is back after five years of disillusionment, mourning and soul-searching. The result is a Nine Inch Nails double CD that re-energizes modern rock at its low point of the '90s.
"The Fragile," released this week, may be the most intense and emotional album to come out since Nirvana's "Nevermind" in late 1991. Reznor pours out his torment in an uncompromising blend of music and pathos.
The title track is a furious symphony of sound. "The Fragile" begins with Reznor's voice in a morose whisper, barely able to get out the words, "She matters when everything is meaningless/. . . Sometimes it seems that nothing is worth saving/I can't watch her slip away."
A string section adds to the funereal atmosphere of the song, which slowly builds with crunching guitars and a screaming chorus as Reznor and his band repeat the lyric, "I won't let you fall apart."
Then the song goes back to a muffled, slow and eerie rhythm. "It's too late for me," Reznor moans in an almost spooky voice. Then it's back to an explosion of the industrial sound that Reznor and his band helped define in the mid-'90s.
Nine Inch Nails' last album was 1994's "The Downward Spiral." That CD was about "peeling off layers of madness, and that record ended on a bleak thought," Reznor recently told MTV. He added that the new album is about "repair."
It has been a tumultuous time for Reznor. His grandmother, who raised him, died in 1997. Reznor had a bitter falling-out with his former friend and collaborator Marilyn Manson, and also endured a failed relationship with Courtney Love.
Reznor went through therapy. In addition to his personal problems, he seemed out of step in today's musical environment that includes bad-boy frat rock bands like Limp Bizkit and teen idols such as the Backstreet Boys.
There was pressure, then, on Reznor to come back as rock's savior. "I don't have to save rock," he told MTV. "I don't even like rock that much."
Reznor even looks different. Gone is the shoulder-length hair and facial hair. Now his jet-black hair is cropped shorter, hanging just over his ears, and he is clean-shaven. More important than looks is Reznor's mental state and his decision to release a new CD.
"It came down to really just facing myself again and (remembering) that playing music has always saved me in the past," Reznor has said.
Reznor delves into deep personal territory on the CD, and the fallout with Manson gets center stage on "Starf----- Inc." It's a slow-building rocker with a distorted vocal that apes the Manson sound. It's also a nasty little number that puts Manson in his place.
The pace slows on the moody, pensive "The Day the World Went Away." It's back to the dark side on a hard-driving "We're in This Together." A soft piano introduces "The Wretched"; "Into the Void" has an electro-pop feeling.
Much of the album, produced by Reznor and Alan Moulder, features electronic music and computerized riffs. Reznor and his band, however, dominate with a full, live sound that overcomes the techno gimmicks.
A guest appearance by guitarist Adrian Belew of King Crimson gives Nine Inch Nails more musical props. Reznor shows his iconoclastic edge with soft piano melodies and a half-dozen instrumental tracks on the double CD. The instrumentals include everything from dance to classically influenced sounds.
Familiar themes keep reappearing throughout this concept album: alienation, isolation, betrayal and, finally, survival. Reznor may be overwhelmed by his problems, but he has somehow been able to cope with them.
"I reached a point where I said I just want to deal with things on my own terms," he told MTV.
Reznor's style on the new CD is sort of "Eleanor Rigby" meets "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The only shortcoming is that the moaning wears thin on a two-CD set. Reznor's wails and despair come close to overkill. But compared to other rock music today, Reznor's naked emotion and creative urgency is refreshingly honest. Rating: ****.
Our Lady Peace returns with a follow-up CD to "Clumsy," the Canadian band's breakout album that sold more than 2 million copies.
"Happiness . . . Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch" is a CD filled with more modern-rock hooks and biting lyrics. "One Man Army," the first single, is a rollicking number about what lead singer Raine Maida calls "the struggle for individuality."
Our Lady Peace remains unpredictable and moody. They turn bitter on the pensive rocker "Happiness & The Fish"; "Blister" is a ballad that lacks focus. Maida's vocal dominates somber numbers such as "Waited" and "Thief."
Our Lady Peace seems to be searching for a style. The band closes with a rousing finale on "Stealing Babies," a number with raw emotion and a hypnotic melody. Overall, this CD doesn't match Our Lady Peace's previous album, but it's still worth hearing. Rating: .***
Former Buffalo resident Brian McKnight is back in slick and powerful form on his new CD. "Back at One," the title track, is vintage McKnight: soulful, romantic and smooth.
McKnight effortlessly offers an appealing, intimate sound throughout the CD. The topic of love is covered on "6, 8, 12," with a little funk thrown in for good measure on "Last Dance" and "Can't You Read My Mind." The harmony, backup music and McKnight's vocal prowess and songwriting hark to the glory days of the old Motown. Rating: *** 1/2 .
NINE INCH NAILS The Fragile (Nothing 490473)
OUR LADY PEACE Happiness . . . Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch (Columbia CK 42827)
BRIAN McKNIGHT Back at One (Motown 012153708)