Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral


5.0
classic

Review

by Med57 EMERITUS
August 22nd, 2005 | 1525 replies


Release Date: 1994 | Tracklist


Objectively speaking, the odds of those you of who read this knowing about my religious beliefs are fairly small. Just to clarify the situation, I'm an atheist. However, I'm not afraid to admit that every now and again I am hit by sudden self-doubt, when the idea hits me that maybe, just maybe, I'm completely wrong and after my death I'll have to spend eternity being punished for my lack of faith. I think that's fairly understandable as well; as far as substantial concerns go, I'd say that permanent suffering is one that deserves to be pretty high on any list. However, is it accurate to say that true, soul-purging suffering can only be found after death when you realise that the entire premise on which your life was founded was wrong? While some people will insist that this is the case, I must beg to differ. And if this case is ever called to trial in a court of law, my first witness will be Mr. Trent Reznor, armed with the master tapes of his 1994 masterpiece The Downward Spiral.

Note that I said "masterpiece," not "album." That's because The Downward Spiral is more than just another album, able to be thought of as something that an artist turned up to record, took it to a producer to mix, and then released. It's a statement. The making of the album is well documented, with Trent Reznor setting up a studio in the Californian house where Charles Manson and his gang of lunatic followers brutally murdered Sharon Tate and her group of friends. It's hard to really think of a more fitting scene for the recording of The Downward Spiral than a house where one of the most notorious murders of recent times took place in fact. While 1994 wasn't a year in which there was any lack of emotionally raw albums (In Utero and The Holy Bible, anyone?), there's something viscerally fascinating about this album, due to the fact that it sounds like the equivalent of someone bottling up Reznor's emotion and then smashing that bottle against a wall as hard as possible before rubbing their hands in the remnants of the glass. In spite of the fact that The Downward Spiral reached #2 on the Billboard Charts, it's also a concept album, taking the listener on a journey through a man's self-destruction, with all the metaphors for society present in such a story. While Reznor constantly sings in the first person, it's hard to avoid the impression that he's cast himself in the role of an everyman, speaking for a doomed humanity.

As the album name suggests, the story told is that of a man's continual downward spiral, culminating in his eventual death and reflection on it from beyond the grave. Starting with the frenzied Mr. Self Destruct in which Reznor lays bare the weak, self-destructive nature of his character, the music progresses through rejection of God (Heresy), society (March Of The Pigs), a former partner (Piggy), and eventually himself and all that he has become (The Downward Spiral). And believe me, if that sounds miserable, then you really need to hear the music that accompanies this horrible story. While a trademark of Nine Inch Nails always has been loud, explosive bursts of noise combined with softer, more ambient textures, here the whole album is imbued with such a sense of otherworldly fear and menace that it seems at times as if Reznor must at times be close to a grand implosion such are the full scale and power of the emotions running through him. Particularly notable for this are Mr. Self Destruct, opening with the sounds of a man being tortured, continuing through Reznor's portrayal of himself as feeble and doomed, and ending with a hail of electronic noise, which ushers in the more downbeat, cynical Piggy. Then there's March Of The Pigs, which has been described as the "most furious song ever to be a hit single." Opening with a simple drum beat, Reznor's screaming rage against society, of which he pledges "I want to watch it all come down" is mirrored by a piano break in which he murmurs "Take the skin and peel it back, now doesn't it make you feel better?" Put simply, it's horrible. The imagery created, the way that the music backs it up: it's repulsive, and that's the only way to describe it. But, more importantly, it's real.

That's what gives the record its power. We've become accustomed to denouncing bands expressing alienated emotion as posers, creating an image for the sake of appealing to their teen audience. Well, if ever an artist could be labelled as a poser, from image alone it would be Reznor. Rarely ever seen in anything but black, he's a poster boy for disaffected youth the world over. But although his lyrics are far from subtle, "I do not want this" and "Don't you tell me how I feel" are repeated again and again on album centrepiece I Do Not Want This, they're undeniably powerful, which is a quite remarkable achievement, when you think about it. Although the lyrics are bold and unmistakable though, they also make up a key part of the intelligence of this album. Although at first it can seem to be a raw scream against everything, The Downward Spiral has a strangely powerful message to deliver. After Ruiner, where it becomes clear that Reznor has rejected God once and for all, he is left with two options. Either things get better, or they don't. If they don't, it's safe to say that God wasn't the problem. By Big Man With A Gun, which provides a debauched portrayal of a world in which men have abandoned God and rule by the twin powers of sex and the gun, it's become rather clear that after casting away everything that could support him, including God, that the narrator is left with nothing, and is lost.

After this moment of dark and dreadful realisation comes one of the two emotionally heartbreaking songs on this album. A Warm Place is miles away from the pounding hysteria of Big Man With A Gun, being influenced rather more by Brian Eno than any screaming emotion. It's a purely instrumental, ambient track which takes the listener back from the abyss into which he was staring deep into his own soul. Gorgeous in its simplicity, it quietly begs the narrator of the story to look at himself and seek to discover how he got where he is today, although its intended effect is rather different to that which it eventually has. Eraser features a return to the pounding music that led into A Warm Place, with Reznor begging "hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me" in such a way that it has become clear that the story of The Downward Spiral will have no happy ending, and that the only question remaining is whether the narrator will be destroyed by his own hand or by the hand of someone he has already rejected. Ironically, the final step on the road to the character's suicide comes in Reptile, when he makes the decision to visit a prostitute, with the importance of this meeting thrown into relief by the sounds of machinery moving regularly in the background. The symbolism is clear: there is no relationship here, just a mechanised reaction, which has happened with other men before, and will do again. The lyrics back this up, with the lines "she has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin, seeds from a thousand others drip down from within... oh my precious whore." After launching one final desperate plea for redemption by visiting the only type of human with whom he can still identify, the central character is left further repelled by humanity, leading to the inevitability of The Downward Spiral. This penultimate track on the album should by rights be the final track here (we'll get back to why it isn't a bit later). It tells the story of the man's suicide, talking in a whisper of how the man puts the gun into his face (note the third person), while Reznor's screams play on a loop in the background. Remarkably enough though, the character's suicide, which you would imagine is the main event here, is completely overshadowed by what happens next.

Is there anyone here who isn't aware of Hurt? Recently covered by Johnny Cash when his death was imminent, the song is the ultimate suicide anthem, with Reznor's character looking back at his life over a soft layer of ambience and acoustic guitars. The amount of symbolism contained in the lyrics here is quite outstanding, summarising the entire concept of the album in one 6 minute song. Referring to his "crown of shit," the reflection on how he rejected God only to find nothing in his place is clear, as is his pledge to "let down" anyone listening. Tragically it is only after his death when he realises in the last lines of the album that if only he were given another chance he would be able to save himself from all that has transpired, but by then, it is too late. One distorted guitar chord sounds, stretching out for what seems like an eternity, and, like that, the soul of the narrator is gone, and with him the story of The Downward Spiral.

Those familiar with the album will be aware that not every track here has been dissected. For space reasons that's inevitable. Nine Inch Nails have a reputation for making music that's a stereotype, and while they may lapse into that on other albums, on The Downward Spiral even the music that sounds basic has hidden layers of complexity. Hell, on Heresy, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted in Reznor's scream of "God is dead," which turns out to be so important to the album. The mark of a witless lyricist? I rather think not. Every track here is meticulously planned to fit the concept of a doomed man spiralling down towards his eventual death, and the sense of impending dread felt by the listener is genuine. As stated, this album is not merely about Trent Reznor. While there are parallels between his life and this album, this album is about humanity and our self-destructive nature as a whole. The extended metaphor regarding phallic imagery and guns reflects the ways in which man can dominate through violence and sex, rather than simply focusing on any one individual. Although The Downward Spiral is splenetic and furious, everyone can identify with it on some level. We may not like to admit it, but the way in which we propelled this album into the upper echelons of popular culture speaks louder than our words.



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user ratings (2974)
Chart.
4.4
superb
other reviews of this album
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Comments:Add a Comment 
Rudd13
August 22nd 2005


952 Comments


Holy mother.

Amazing review, Med. This Message Edited On 08.22.05

Damrod
Moderator
August 22nd 2005


1093 Comments


Grade A material, like always. :thumb:

The older stuff by NIN is not that much appealing to me, but I really enjoy 'With Teeth'

br3ad_man
Emeritus
August 22nd 2005


2125 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Nice work. This album is like any other NIN album really, there are a few good ones. On all of Trent's albums, there are always a few crappy tracks. The second half of this is much more consistent than the first half, although I think "Big Man With a Gun" is a pretty crappy song. The other problem I find with it is even though it's only 10 or so years old, it sounds very dated, especially the synth stuff on the earlier tracks.

Your review was indeed a good one and this album is a classic, but it lacks the quality to be given a 5/5. It really is a great album though. I picked up this album about a year ago for $3 used. Unfortunatly it only had the inside cd and not the cool cover thing that comes with it. Again great review and I will be forced to listen to this cd again tonight.

Med57
Moderator
August 22nd 2005


1001 Comments


It's between 4.5 and 5/5 for me...I gave it a 5 because more often that not whenever I put it on I'm stunned by how good it is. At times, if you're not in the right mood, I'd agree that there are moments when you lose the music a bit if you know what I mean. If there was a 4.8 star rating I could give it, that's what I would do, but that can't happen. It's also easily my favourite NIN album oddly enough...The Fragile seems to be most people's favourite, but to me that suffers from classic double album bloat syndrome.

br3ad_man
Emeritus
August 22nd 2005


2125 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Yeah there's a lot of junk on The Fragile. However, in my opinion, no NIN album is innocent of filler. With all of Trent's albums, when they are good they are really really good. However, I think the good moments on The Fragile are better than on here.

Jawaharal
August 22nd 2005


1832 Comments


this album gets better each time I hear it. Awesome review too. I can't believe you didn't mention closer its one of the best on the albumThis Message Edited On 08.22.05

Killtacular
August 22nd 2005


1314 Comments


I'm with br3ady boy on this one. Whenever I listen to TDS, it seems like the first half lasts forever, just slowing time down and stretching it until it flaps like a taut flag. Having only heard this and The Fragile, this is my least favorite. Closer is great, though. And I don't need to mention how much Hurt owns. I need to get me some o' dat With Teeth.

As for Med, great work. You get an enthusiastic thumbs up.

:thumb:

Rudd13
August 22nd 2005


952 Comments


scruples is back?

Killtacular
August 22nd 2005


1314 Comments


I was gone?

Rudd13
August 22nd 2005


952 Comments


you never were?This Message Edited On 08.22.05

Killtacular
August 22nd 2005


1314 Comments


No, i just took a writing break. I've still been lurking around.
Oh poo, I've been relieved of my Top15 duties. Hmm..
/strokes chinThis Message Edited On 08.22.05

Rudd13
August 22nd 2005


952 Comments


dont hurt me.

Kage
August 22nd 2005


1172 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Holy god....amazing review, Med. Amazing. I've never read a more compelling review about an album. It's all so true...you sum it up better than anyone could.

I love this album, it truly is a masterpiece. It is quite horrifying, though, and intensely dark, so it makes it kind of hard to listen to. But that's a good thing. It's the hardest album for me to listen to, but it probably affects me the deepest as well.

parkingmetersuicide
August 23rd 2005


1 Comments


that was truly an amazing review, and considering i just went on a NIN binge last night, and have lacked it all day, i could use some about now.

Jawaharal
August 23rd 2005


1832 Comments


I'm wearing my nin concert tee right now :cool:

whatduffhuck7
August 23rd 2005


163 Comments


odd i was listening to this album and was looking around at sputnike and saw this. great review, agreed that it is a masterpiece

francesfarmer
August 24th 2005


1477 Comments


Well, this is the best NIN review I've ever read. Pretty good album, too. This Message Edited On 10.07.05This Message Edited On 10.07.05This Message Edited On 12.10.05

Justanothernimrod
August 24th 2005


478 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

one of the few albums worthy of the full 5 stars.

Killtacular
August 24th 2005


1314 Comments


I don't know about that, now.

masada
September 4th 2005


2733 Comments


I love you.



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