Once upon a time, before he composed hit films such as “The Social Network” and “Soul,” Trent Reznor, the sole constant member of Nine Inch Nails, was the quintessential tortured musician. Five years after the pop (yeah, it’s pop) album “Pretty Hate Machine,” Reznor secluded himself in the hills of Los Angeles and emerged with one of the darkest albums of all time.
By Christopher Romo
“The Downward Spiral” is an album that is blunt, sometimes comically so, about the downfall of an unnamed protagonist, and his struggle with his eventual death. The contrast with his acceptance of his death, peppered throughout the album, serves to make this record a watershed event not only in industrial rock, but for 90s alternative rock.
It was now wholly acceptable for a musician to write anguished, angst-filled lyrics, over music that at times is downright ripped from 80s new wave. But underneath the music, which is insanely well-produced, there lies a genuine darkness to Reznor’s production.
Reznor wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted to blow people’s heads off, as he screams on “Big Man with a Gun.” He was actually feeling these emotions, and that’s what makes this record stand above its contemporaries. There’s an element of real danger to “The Downward Spiral,” as if the sounds recorded are actually going to assault you if you get too close.
Stand-out tracks on this record include the downright Lovecraftian “The Becoming,” punctuated by absolute horror and bedlam in the background as a desperate Reznor pontificates about how he feels more man than machine.
“March of the Pigs,” a rip-off of grunge, with a heavy dose of metal and boasting a 29/8 time signature, practically begs you to mosh and break a whole bunch of stuff. “Reptile,” perhaps the ugliest and most sinister track industrial rock ever produced, has an almost alien production behind it, as Reznor moans and groans his way through an adolescent tale of a woman being split wide open for him.
And of course, the track that launched him into the mainstream: “Closer.” The lyrics are a bit middle of the road when it comes down to it, but the refrain, “I want to f**k you like an animal,” is so shockingly blatant that you can’t help but admire it. It’s a dance-inflected, hooky track, an almost six-minute-long descent into madness, with synths cutting in-and-out as if they are symbolizing the unwanted thoughts in Reznor’s head.
The only instrumental, “A Warm Place,” is haunting, with a menacing ambience hanging over the entire three-and-half minutes. The final track, “Hurt,” stripped of the industrial pretentions that made up the last hour, begins with a barely audible acoustic guitar, and Reznor, almost whispering the lyrics in direct contrast to his animated self, talks about the overwhelming urge to commit suicide.
No other musician can make something that could easily have been pretentious sound so downright real and raw. The end of the song feels like THE end of his life, and when the track finally clicks off, it’s as if a breath has been released for the final time.
Reznor’s lyrics might at times sound outdated and downright pitiful, but with the absolutely filthy production behind it, it’s elevated to a sort of ugly art. The implications of this album cannot be overstated enough. It is Nine Inch Nail’s best record, and one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 1990s and of industrial rock in general. Not many artists can claim they influenced an entire genre, but that’s exactly what Reznor did in 1994.