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 shi
t," 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.