Review Summary: An excellent perspective on the everyman.
It was not surprising that Nine Inch Nails, solo project and breakthrough of Trent Reznor, would flow into greater things. Pretty Hate Machine
was the album that could. Trent was solely responsible for bringing himself and industrial into the scene; the artist released an album that was a brilliant fusion of heavy rock and keyboard-laden electronica. Although it was not a perfect album, it was an interesting type of music - the early 90's and very late 80's were the era when grunge and hip hop had dominated the industry: whereas those song followed the verse-chorus style of rock and were naturally pretty positive, Trent's debut was filled with sorrow and pleas for redemption - thankfully, the project was met with critical acclaim. After that, Reznor began working on his new album after the Lollapalooza tour in 1991, and set up a studio to produce his next album - the infamous 10050 Cielo Drive, the scene of Sharon Tate's murder - in 1992. Two and a half years later, The Downward Spiral
was released, to further acclaim and established Nine Inch Nails as one of the biggest commercial successes of the 1990's.
The Downward Spiral
is a concept album - the topic mainly focuses around a man going through his own drift into insanity, through rejection of humankind and eventually himself. However, the story is entirely up to interpretation by the viewer. Reznor's own little album that could is an LP that almost everybody can relate to in at least one track - it's an outstanding replica of the struggles of everyday society. The sound of The Downward Spiral is mainly comprised of explosive electronic noise, over layers of ambient silence and heavy, dark rock, to represent a very intense and self-destructive world, the various bits of distortion and silence to recreate trembling gasps of sanity in the black that is the character's world. It was the album that the industrial scene is waiting for, and possibly the whole music scene in general.
The whole hour-long experience is made up of fourteen tracks. The album opens up with Mr. Self Destruct
, and right from the start, possesses all of the apparent character traits mentioned before. There is a very distorted electronic piano and crackling drum beat, intermixing in the chorus with the ferocious guitar riff; over Reznor's quiet lyrics describing of the metaphorical 'Mister Self Destruct', each line starting with an 'I am' statement (I am the silencing machine / And I control you - I am the end of all your dreams / And I control you
). The metaphorical title of 'Mr. Self Destruct' is a concept for the destructive force inside of all men, as seen behind Reznor's own lyrics: while things seem to be perfect, there is an imperfection that we strive for to balance it all out; there is a Mr. Self Destruct inside of us all. Right from the start, the whole album portrays humanity in a matter of four and a half minutes.
The rest of the album flows on with a different sound almost every time. The brilliance of Downward Spiral is that in every track there is a different sound for the different moods and situations - each one relating to the topic (in the oddest of senses). The cynical Piggy
is comprised of audio sampling and a looping, jazz-sounding drum beat, which eventually leads into a furious drum solo; the whole song is to describe the rejection of a former partner or friend - as the character feels the loathing and defiance (the Mr. Self Destruct taking over) - proved in the repeating chorus of "Nothing can stop me now, cause I don't care anymore
". The partner has become nothing more than deadweight for the character. Eventually it leads into probably one of the most important tracks on the album, the furious Heresy
- the whole song is made up of a syncopated - darkly so - piano, over the explosive and simple guitar riffs and a dropping drum fill; the entirety of the song relays a concept of Nihilism. The irony of the song is that people feel that religion is a comfortable outlet to escape what some consider a "scary reality", but there are religious mongers who show hatred and compliance by the use of fear; pain and disappointment are parts of life from which you can live and grow, but the opposite is present in this song.
Following after that is the almost thrash-like sound of March of the Pig
, which deals with the character's biggest leap yet - his rejection of all society. It's a very fast song - at three minutes - based off of a straightforward drum beat and infuriating guitars, with Trent screaming hate against humanity in itself - then is broken into two piano breakdowns, the first which leads into the second verse, the second fades the song out; while it may sound very angsty at first (which it is), the end of it is very melancholy and sad, as if the character has finally finished digging his sullen hole and can't get out (The pigs have won tonight / Now they may sleep soundly / Everything is alright
). Then the whole album swerves off onto a different path with Closer
: an entirely bass-and-drum song that builds up as it progresses; eventually cutting off into a dramatic closer of electronica and a very soothing piano. Closer is infamous for being considered an explicit and sexual song, due to the chorus (I want to *** you like an animal / I want to feel you from the inside
), but it is instead a very depressing song. The whole song derives on man's desire; as sex does make people happy, and the character is attempting to use that as sort of a healing method - to find an outlet when he has none of his own.
The middle section of the album is a mix of various sounds and styles, which leads up being very creative. It is to represent the end of the first part of the character's dramatic beginning, eventually going into the metaphorical 'Downward Spiral', and realizing what he's become. Ruiner
is a more synth-and-drum mix than the previous ones, with violent verses and rich guitars and bass: each one builds up to the character's eventual realization of himself; the lyrics are supposed to represent someone the character thought he could trust, the one who betrayed him and left him in an emotional rut - but the irony is that the very one who did that is himself. Distortion eventually flows into The Becoming
, a synth rock song built up of a mechanical sounding noise; it is obviously metaphorical, and basically references (both in lyric and sound), an emotionless machine: where you eventually become devoid of all emotions - like a machine. It's a very powerful song, but the personality is changed in I Do Not Want This
; definitely one of the more heart-wrenching pieces on the album, the whole refers to a sense of hopelessness of what the character has become, and feels powerless over what his mind has chosen for him (I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to *** everyone in the world / I want to do something that matters
). And the consequences of rejecting everyone become evident; he now has no one to help him except himself.
The climax of the album leads into the singular track Big Man With a Gun
. Over a very simplistic drum beat, it is the shortest and most violent song on the album. The track is open to interpretation, but the context of the album is best described as the titular character looking at himself in a mirror; he holds a gun to his head, eventually learning that he himself is the problem, screaming at himself and aggressively deciding whether or not to actually pull the trigger and end it. He taunts himself, comes up with a metaphor for it, but ultimately fails and realizes he doesn't have the strength left in him to do the one simple task. After the intensity of this track, it fades into the next track.
A Warm Place
is the more operatic sounding track of the whole album - and definitely a masterpiece. The whole scope of the song is vast and contains several instruments, mostly made up of slightly distorted violins, a thundering, melancholy piano, and soft ambience. Without saying a single word - an instrumental - the song is able to stir up an emotional compassion for the character. By the title itself, a picture can form and the instruments speak louder than the vocals. It represents a place inside the soul and person that has not been destroyed by depression or anger, feeling a sense of wandering for a better feeling inside of you but never finding it. It's the last hope the character has, but eventually it goes into the Eraser
track. It opens up with a frantic drum loop, played over a distorted piano sound, almost reminiscent of frightened emotions or nerves on edge. After what seems like a long time, it fades into a slow piano session, with Reznor's very quiet vocals (Need you, Dream you, Find you, Taste you
), before eventually going back into the furious, guitar-laden sound of Big Man, with Reznor screaming 'Erase me' over and over: it is to represent how while he has no strength to finish himself off, he wants another man who is stronger to do it for him, as he feels he is too weak or far beyond even helping himself.
So probably to follow up with that, comes Reptile
- opening with a very Bonhamesque-sounding drum loop, and with the effects of a machine in the background; the song deals with Reznor meeting with a prostitute, going back to his eventual state as he was in Closer
. The character needed someone to get him out of his misery because he had no will to do it himself, but he had rejected all of society. And the prostitute is an emotionless machine - like in The Becoming - and will accompany anybody. So Trent follows up with a last stand to find someone he might relate to (Oh my precious whore
), but fails to recreate himself. And then the album fades into its last stage - the titular track. This haunting track begins with a very twisted acoustic guitar sound, and then drops into a very tiny piano sound over a screaming loop, with Reznor whispering the sentences of the spoken track (Everything's blue in this world / The deepest shade of mushroom blue, all fuzzy / spilling out of my head
). When the track eventually fades, it builds into the finale of The Downward Spiral.
is the ending track, the endgame to the entire album. The track has become popular in modern culture (mostly due to the cover of Johnny Cash himself), and is an excellent reflect on a troubled life. This is a song of the character looking back on his old life, knowing that he could of changed everything he had started, but instead finished what he started and made the wrong choice in the end. If he could of changed himself and started over, he'd right the wrong he'd done; this six-minute track kills all the cynical nature of the album and the angst, instead replacing it with an almost redemption kind of sound - one of pleas. Comprised of a slow-progressing acoustic guitar and a wind-like sound in the background, it leads into a slightly faster riff, then dropping into a sad piano breakdown with the chorus twice, and near the end a hard guitar and thunderous drums drop in - after a loud scream, the story of The Downward Spiral ends.
The Downward Spiral can be summed up simply by the five stages of grief. The album begins with Denial (It's not me, it's god, all their fault), with Anger (All society has done is ruin me), Barter (Perhaps sex may please me again), of Depression (the entire middle and end), and eventually leading into Acceptance - though it is instead greeted with the interpretation of death. But it's clear the album doesn't just end there - the entire story is different to everyone who may listen to it.
Trent Reznor's signature album is indeed not without its flaws - the album does suffer from a slight repetition in some tracks and may drag on - but whatever filler included is easy to overcome: the entire backstory in itself and the symbolism is worth listening to it in general. Listen to the album - it will indeed change your life.
(And for anyone who cares, the album artwork is titled "Wound" and among your basic oil and acrylic paints, there are also dead insects and the artists own blood in the piece.)
Nine Inch Nails
1994, The Downward Spiral