Nine Inch Nails
frontman Trent Reznor is one unhappy man, and he lays bare the full extent of his anguish on The Downward Spiral
, a dizzyingly brilliant labyrinth of self-loathing. Armed with electric guitars and industrial noises of every kind, The Downward Spiral
seethes and spews, as Reznor creates a universe of misery that is initially repulsive but becomes more inviting and fascinating with each listening. For audiences willing to venture into Reznor’s world of sexual depravity, suicidal thoughts and bottomless agony, the album offers spellbindingly compelling music.
A Unique Headphone Experience
On his previous full-length album, 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor resembled a New Wave artist with a mean streak, but The Downward Spiral pulls from industrial rock, techno and metal for its effects, resulting in a less-danceable album that requires more patience to fully digest. This is not to suggest that the album lacks out-of-the-box singles – the dark dance number “Closer” and the menacing guitar-and-keyboard rock of “March of the Pigs” dazzle immediately. Rather, Reznor has conceived The Downward Spiral as a complete experience, often cleverly segueing between songs so as to extend a certain mood or radically alter it. Individual tracks like “Eraser” or “Reptile” might seem superfluous, but within the context of the album’s flow, they become enormously important, building on earlier songs’ themes of emotional impotence and self-hatred. Fans looking for just an album’s worth of hits will be disappointed, but anybody who loves a good-old-fashioned headphone journey, The Downward Spiral has all the drama and plot twists of a feature-length film.
Pop Songs Disguised as Miserable Music
Since Nine Inch Nails traffic in such ostensibly miserable music, how does Reznor keep the songs from drowning in misery? One reason is that Reznor, despite his jaundiced worldview and grim subject matter, actually writes pop songs. Granted, no one would confuse the violent guitar assault of “Mr. Self Destruct” for a Britney Spears
pop ditty, but much of The Downward Spiral
features pronounced melodic hooks so that the songs’ agony sticks in the ear. At times, the softer section of a song, like in “March of the Pigs,” has a sarcastic component to it, mocking the listener’s need for a reprieve, but on the whole Reznor’s songwriting instincts are so sharp that he manages to make ugly sentiments palatable. In addition, he switches up his attack, varying his songs’ tempos and volume so that his anger never becomes monotonous.
A Stab at Optimism
After singing about kinky sex in “Closer,” the death of God in “Heresy” and male ego run amok in “Big Man With a Gun,” Reznor closes The Downward Spiral with “Hurt,” a relatively straightforward ballad about self-mutilation that is probably the most disturbing moment on the entire record. With spare instrumentation backing him, Reznor draws a parallel between his inability to feel and his desire to still connect to someone close to him. While the song could never be described as happy-go-lucky, it’s as close as The Downward Spiral comes to an optimistic message – although admittedly, Reznor’s initiation to his lover (“You could have it all/My empire of dirt”) is hardly promising. Still, after an album of hopelessness, even an empire of dirt is better than the abyss Reznor’s been staring into for so long.
“March of the Pigs”
“Mr. Self Destruct”
Release date – March 8, 1994