Looking to depart from the distorted production of their previous record, The Downward Spiral (1994), the album features elements of ambient and electronic music, alongside the band's traditional industrial rock sound. Lyrically, the record brings over some of the themes from The Downward Spiral, including depression and drug abuse. The album notably contains more instrumental sections than their previous work, some of which span entire tracks. The Fragile is also one of the band's longest studio releases, clocking in at nearly one and three quarter hours long. The record was promoted with three singles: "The Day the World Went Away", "We're in This Together", and "Into the Void", as well as the promotional single "Starfuckers, Inc." and an accompanying tour, the Fragility Tour, which spanned two legs. Several accompanying recordings were also released, including a remix album, Things Falling Apart (2000), a live album, And All That Could Have Been (2002), as well as an alternate version of the record, The Fragile: Deviations 1 (2016).
Upon release, the album received a positive response from critics, who applauded its ambition and composition, although some criticized its length and lyrical substance. Retrospectively, it is cited by many critics and audiences to be among the band's best work. The album debuted at number one in the US, becoming their first chart-topper, and was eventually certified double-platinum by RIAA.
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.
The Fragile was produced by Trent Reznor and Alan Moulder at Nothing Studios in New Orleans. There were some personnel changes within Nine Inch Nails after the Self-Destruct tour, which saw drummer Chris Vrenna replaced by Bill Rieflin and Jerome Dillon, the latter of whom would become Nine Inch Nails' full-time drummer until late 2005. Charlie Clouser and Danny Lohner contributed occasional instrumentation and composition to several tracks although the album was predominantly written and performed by Reznor alone. The Fragile was mixed by Alan Moulder and mastered by Tom Baker. The packaging was created by David Carson and Rob Sheridan.