Review Summary: Trent Reznor soundtracks man's destruction
The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails
In almost all cases, the best music is done by those whose mindset is questionable. David Bowie recorded his lauded Berlin trilogy recovering from a heroin addiction. Nirvana’s In Utero
was recorded months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The Holy Bible
was recorded when Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers was suffering from an extreme mental breakdown. Hell, even The Beatles’ best albums were recorded when they were barely even talking. The Downward Spiral
, however, is scarily different.
Recorded in the home of the infamous Sharon Tate murders by the Manson family, The Downward Spiral
is an ugly, horrifying, grotesque, perverted, disturbing, haunting affair, graphically detailing the inner turmoil and descent of a certain individual. NIN mainman Trent Reznor’s lyrics are (save from the title track) all written in the first person, making the album even more harrowing.
The majority of the faster tracks utilise Wall of Sound, placing chainsaw guitars against hammering drums and Reznor’s screamed vocals, making it extremely hard to listen to. What is even harder is the quieter moments, which come when you least expect it. Take the transition between Mr. Self Destruct
. The former (starting with an unsettling sample of a man being beaten by a prison guard), is the type of song you’d use to annoy your neighbour. Loud, ugly, and abrasive, it suddenly cuts into Piggy
, a much much softer song which utilises thick drums and Reznor’s hushed vocals, before Reznor repeatedly states “nothing can stop me now” while the drums behind him basically do whatever they want.
Much of the genius of the album comes from the various samples used. The aforementioned sample at the beginning of Mr. Self Destruct
(taken from George Lucas film THX 1138
) sets the tone for the album perfectly. The terrified screams in The Becoming
sampled from Robot Jox
add to the menacing and dark bassline. Reptile
, the track where the character visits his last resort, a prostitute, the only person he can relate to anymore, starts off with mechanical clanks sampled from Leviathan
, while the break around the five minute mark features a strange, disturbing sound that borders on sobbing and orgasm, taken from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
One of the main criticisms for the album, and thus most of Nine Inch Nails’ work, is the lyrics. While it is obvious they are not the most complex (Reznor won’t be getting any lauds for being the next Bob Dylan or Jeff Mangum), the simplicity only makes them all the more powerful (“I can try to get away but I’ve strapped myself in”, “I’m always falling down the same hill”). As explained before, the lyrics detail the concept of the album. Deliberately vague and open to interpretation, the basis of it is a man’s “downward spiral”, as one by one all that is close to him leaves him behind, or vice versa. He Besides the recurring mention of “nothing can stop me now”, a common theme for the lyrics is sex. And no, not in a lovey-dovey way. The way that is sick, disgusting and perverted. Closer
features the infamous chorus line of “I want to f*** you like an animal”, while Reptile
arguably features the finest lyrics of the album.
Aside from all the brutality and ugliness, there are three tracks on the album that contain raw beauty, tearful moments lurking amongst the dirt. The first is the instrumental A Warm Place
, expertly placed right after Big Man With a Gun
, the shortest, harshest and most grotesque song of the album, using the same transition method as Mr. Self Destruct
. Opening with echoing ambience, listen very closely and you’ll hear the devastating line of “The best thing about life is knowing you put it together”. The rest of the track is haunting tearful ambience, the brief moment of heartbreaking realisation before the ultimate darkness. Light electronic guitar lines sound against soft organs, before descending into the incredibly unsettling sound of… spit (?) and humming that soundtracks the beginning of Eraser
, before shocking you with the loudest and heaviest drums ever put tape.
The title-track starts off with altered acoustic guitar against a creepy, murky backdrop, before the entire song changes. Reznor is heard screaming in the background, while another Reznor whispers in your ear disturbingly simple lyrics (in third-person) about suicide (“so much blood for such a tiny little hole.”)
The album closes off with arguably NIN’s most well-known song. Infamously covered by Johnny Cash months before his death, Hurt
is the ultimate suicide anthem. Opening with acoustic guitar against a background of fuzz, Reznor delivers his defining vocal performance, the sound of a man with nothing left. The instrumentation gets much darker in the chorus, with Reznor shouting “You can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt”. After another verse, the chorus repeats, before the guitars get even darker, with “If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself” before “I would find a way” (and the album, and thus the story) is sounded off with the heaviest guitar riff known to man, a sudden, shocking finisher, the final gunshot, one that wakes you up and throws you down to the ground, one that lasts three seconds yet takes forever to end. And only after do you realise the lyrics make it obvious the character of the album did have another chance.
As explained before, this album is different from other “dark, insane” albums such as In Utero
and The Holy Bible
, in that Reznor was mostly of sound state of mind. The horror of the album is only increased when one realises that after this album was released, Reznor descended into a whirlpool of depression, anxiety and grief, resulting in severe alcohol and drug addiction, an addiction that soundtracked epic double album The Fragile
. In a way, the album became Reznor, and Reznor became the album.
Tragic, disturbing, ugly yet beautiful, I can safely say this is the darkest album I have listened to. It changed the way I listen to and explore music, made me realise that music can really mean something. It made me seek music I can feel, music that is unafraid to cross dangerous boundaries. While it is most certainly not an easy ride (and I do not kid when I saw it is not for the faint of heart), it is one of the most rewarding listening experiences you will have.