Review Summary: The Downward Spiral: One of the most harrowing concept albums of all time, or the Holy Bible theatricalized?
Ah yes! The Downward Spiral, an album I have once clinged to in those desperate lonely nights, inhaling my own stale air. The flickering of a dim lampshade in the distance as I fell asleep to the endless clattering of furnace machinery and guttural howls screaming out from my headphones. Call me aloof but there comes a time in those difficult adolescent years that such chaos is necessary to understand the chaos of the world we live in. The Downward Spiral to many of us is the old saying “who needs therapy when you have Trent Reznor” Those words hold some truth to them but like the dangers of any misdiagnoses it would be best taking those words with a pinch of a salt.
It may seem strange at first that I compare this technical milestone in industrial metal to an other album released in 1994: The Holy Bible, by what now are an anthemic somewhat adult alternative rock band in their 40’s, the little band that could, The Manic Street Preachers. But back in the early 1990s the group had a secret weapon (not so secret anymore) in rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards. The self harming, bile spewing poetic lyricist was finally declared legally dead last year after mysteriously disappearing in 1995. He was on the verge of the group’s first American tour. Edwards had a saying that he would make one classic album then “Burn Out”. That promise he fulfilled after making such an album in The Holy Bible.
Now if there are any albums I have heard in my life which I could compare in similarity and then make a judgment on which one pales behind the other it would be these two grim opuses. The problem I have in making that decision means I have to move on and admit that as good as it still is The Downward Spiral seems to falter. As the years creep by, swept underneath the doors of my memory I realize that I can not feel the same urge of rebellion that flowed vitally through me years ago. It’s a sad undermining feeling nostalgia leaves that you can not relive those years again, but I’m letting this one go.
Musically The Downward Spiral has to be a record for the ages. It is so well crafted, so meticulously layered that describing the structure of the songs inside just seems futile to their quality. The Becoming with its ominous sampled screams perfectly arranged to add maximum visceral effect to that shuddering bass line, the icy death disco of Ruiner with that perfect bluesy solo and their just the lesser known tracks. March of the Pigs, Closer and Reptile have all become nightclub staples whilst the now legendary closer Hurt has become the Decades of well, the decade. The Downward Spiral if anything serves now as a historical document in what the mid nineties sounded like, the answer to why Axel Rose developed his Robin Finch obsession or what twisted pit spawned grotesque Reznor protégé Marilyn Manson into mass stardom.
So why, why after such praise could I have given this a 4 rating? You see this is where I believe the Manics Holy Bible can be used as ample evidence to what makes the Downward Spiral just miss the status of being a life changing classic. What made Richie Edwards stark tirades of political oppression, mental illness and vile murderous atrocities work in a way that seemed life affirming to me was that many of the songs came from first hand experience or they were poetically abstract enough to avoid accusations of hollow shock value and exploitation. Both albums snarl and spit in disgust at humanity, both lyrically and musically (The Holy Bibles, the Intense Humming of Evil is even a Nine Inch Nails Inspired track) However Reznor chose to craft differently. He worked laboriously on the work, perhaps too laboriously……
Lyrically The Downward Spiral is given its fatal flaw, Reznor has never been a great lyricist but whilst he lacks subtlety he makes up for it in melody. The Downward Spiral however is mired by a sheer convoluted pretension which parodies its serious subject matter in mental illness. I am not one to spit out at the apolitically correct but this is an album which could very well stigmatize depressive illnesses further. It is one thing to say that depressed people like to engage in sex with prostitutes and disregard lovers frequently at ease but to include a song like “Big Man with a Gun” is just preposterous. Fortunately to assume that many who have listened to The Downward Spiral believe whole heartedly in its concept would be an insult to people’s intelligence. Of course most of us do not take this albums concept too seriously, which is what buries such grievances under the rug but it is still frustrating all the same that what the album lyrically is, is a parody of its subject matter.
This then hurts the music as well. There is almost never a destination point for this spinning bullet. The lovely late night ambience of A Warm Place which seems to borrow a lot from David Bowie's Chrystal Japan is the only thing that provides space to breath up until Hurt and it is placed near the end of the disc. In all its macabre bluster Reznor could have eased back on the tension to invite me into the actual albums theme. If he thought that he could not tackle the concept with complete honesty he could have at least let some melancholy passages do the talking. Of course Reznor was a young man at the time enjoying his youth and it is hard for me to attack him for not being able to transform this music into an honest testament for an experience that no one wishes to endure.
If something good can be said about the albums lyrical content is that when at his simplest Reznor’s flair for emotional theatrics is spot on. Mr. Self Destruct’s cryptic declarations of the many addictions we seem to openly enjoy are jarringly poetic and its blistering chainsaw guitars and machine gun drum loops are an outstanding example of how aggressive yet tuneful industrial music can be. The now well quoted Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche statement that “God is dead” is used well to enhance Heresy’s and the album’s nihilistic undertones and finally Hurt in all its ragged, dissonant and heartbreaking glory is an achievement on its own that Reznor has yet to best.
As one grows older this is an album which has the possibility to loose playability value, fortunately in this case it just means from something that was played infinitely is now played frequently. I can admit to myself that life and the people I meet on the way offer opportunities to be the best person I can be. The Holy Bible on the other hand has stood the test of time to a further degree. It educates, it makes you give a damn and that alone is a liberating experience.
For me this is an album I still keep close to my heart though. Despite my frustration with how Reznor went about crafting it I can forgive him as he was simply free and naïve as I am now. What’s done is done but the music itself has stood the test of time, a haunting yet somehow warm reminder that there is light at the end of the tunnel if one chooses to see it and that growing pains can fade. This ironically is completely different to how the albums story ends of course but the sentiment of such a journey is easily more powerful than just ending it with a suicide.