Review Summary: Not many people like sad. But if they choose to overlook The Downward Spiral, they miss one of the most authentic and amazing expressions of human emotion ever recorded.
When you think of a downward spiral, what do you think of? Is it something you can pictorally or verbally grasp, with ease? Trent Reznor will put this in perspective for you. Everything about The Downward Spiral, from the album artworks (see EPs) collapsing in on themselves to the chilling human depression of the music itself, speaks pure understanding. This is the most a listener can ask of an album. Forget happiness, forget love, forget the positive forces within the world. Despite my internal optimism, The Downward Spiral is one of my favorite albums because it speaks with unparalleled honesty and wisdom. Despite this being in a world of gloom and death, the album accomplishes precisely what it was meant to. Fresh off a solid but admittedly 80s-style debut, Reznor scored his true masterpiece in 1994.
"Mr. Self Destruct" begins the album with a bang. A nice, even 32 bangs. Then the music comes in. If a member of Fight Club were to shoot speedballs before a match, this would be his soundtrack. The key factor is the pounding bass drum, driving the tempo and drilling holes in your skull. Reznor screams of all the negative influences that can bring a man down, producing this self-destruction. Sex, religion, violence, drugs, they are all there. This is, like many tracks in the album, a subtle introduction to all that will destroy the protagonist. This song is the beginning of the end. A nice, quiet middle section brings whispers and moans that display, all the same, furious and deviant passion. The song then closes with a rising sonic wave that collapses on itself before a frightfully dissonant, polyrhythmic range of guitars.
"Piggy" follows, a slow song with a nice little bass line I've always enjoyed. I find most of the song a little boring, but the main value lies in the lyrics: "Hey pig there's a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand. What am I supposed to do? I lost my *** because of you. Nothing can stop me now." The most interesting part of the track is the offbeat, slightly frantic drumming at the song's close. This is to-date Reznor's only attempt at live drumming, for which he was simply testing the microphones. He liked it so much he kept it. Good choice, as it is the only interesting part of a track that has a definitive purpose in the album, but is nevertheless bland.
A synth intro then pops in for Heresy, and once the crashing snare drum enters, the train has left the station. Featuring much of the dark drive present on the first track, Reznor creates a separation between our protagonist and God: "God is dead and no one cares/if there is a hell, I'll see you there". This complete lack of faith in a life beyond his own represents a devil-may-care attitude that could easily allow Mr. Self Destruct to become even more powerful. This is a common theme throughout the album: later tracks make earlier tracks more relevant and strong, and the earlier tracks do the same for their counterparts.
The fourth track, "March of the Pigs", is another track I would skip on another album but, much like "Piggy", it is an effective transition. The highlight for me is in yet another acoustic portion in the middle: "Take the skin and peel it back. Now doesn't that make you feel better?" From here the rougher music slides back in and by the end, as the piano slides out, "everything is all right"... Well, depends on if you like sex. "Closer"'s beat is, for lack of a better word, sexy as hell. The song can be taken as loving and passionate, but is in the end desperate. This is best encapsulated in the phrase: "The only thing that works for me/ Help me get away from myself". There are many reasons one would say "I wanna *** you like an animal", but this song clearly represents desperation and depression featured in later tracks. Sex becomes an escape and a straining, hopeless grasp to attain happiness. Reznor states "You get me closer to God", but this further complicates the relationship portrayed in "Heresy" as well as the sometimes dubious motives the protagonist has in this track.
From here we reenter pain in relationships with "Ruiner" in tow. Sexual euphoria doesn't last forever, guys. The ruiner's got a lot to prove, and the biggest questions are "How'd you get so big? How'd you get so strong? How'd you get so hard? How'd you get so long?" At first this will seem like full-frontal sexual references, but I also take these questions to be describing a person. The larger-than-life, hardening of our character and the world around him will become more and more evident, as we watch him lose his touch with beauty and as his surroundings continue to suffocate him in their steel grip.
"The Becoming" is where it all goes to hell. Perfectly transitioning from "Ruiner", our protagonist is becoming all of the negative influences we have seen him fight against. Not only has the character embraced his darker side, but he now admits "That part of me isn't here anymore". The listener should know from this point that we are never returning to the surface; the downward spiral emerges. This changes the first six tracks for your second listen, when you are aware that the climax will arise in this manner. "The me that you know is made up of wires", and from here we will merely see the protagonist go through the motions of, well, pretending to be alive. The whispers at the end, the goddamned noises inside the mind, echo to the listener as a projection of death.
"I Do Not Want This" proceeds to thud into the picture. This is possibly my favorite NIN track, for the lyrical depth as well as the progression of the song. The biggest proclamation of the song is "DON'T YOU TELL ME HOW I FEEL", which quite honestly everyone should live by. No one truly knows how you feel. However, in our case, I don't believe even the protagonist himself knows what he feels. He can simply note "nothing comes bleeding out of me" as "There really isn't anything now is there?" The ending of the song is absolutely incredible. The main phrase "I want to know everything/I want to be everywhere/I want to *** everyone in the world/I want to do something that matters" is a mindblowing sequence. Most of the phrase hits home, as our character desires relevance and meaning in his world, but the phrase "I want to *** everyone in the world" is just absolutely terrifying. It doesn't make sense. Our underlying sense of desperation has emerged, as the character flails for whatever will make him alive and create a purpose as each minute goes by. This phrase is repeatedly crescendoing and changing, literally one belting pitch for Reznor at a time until it comes to a jarring close with " DO SOMETHING THAT MATTERS". It will stick with you.
"Big Man With A Gun" comes in with a creepy howling sound which is an apparently altered recording from someone having sex with Tommy Lee. Probably the sound I would produce in that situation. I used to skip this track, for a very long time, because it was so disturbing to me. Consisting of horribly violent and sexual entendres, this song is a mockery of the sexual and mortal violence that can pervade our culture. Robert Bork (Reagan administration) once attacked modern culture with this song as an example, but more on that later.
A Warm Place is a nice interlude; the lyrics wholly consist of "The best thing about life is knowing you put it together". Well, that's great and all, but the listener can sense this is not enough. "Eraser" presents the character's undeniable wish for death; his dissatisfaction with his place in the world and the choices he has made come to a violent, desperate head. Erase me.
"Reptile" has a great beginning that people often complain about due to its extreme subtlety, but whether the track is new or you've heard it a million times, I believe you should enjoy the intro. At the one-minute mark, the instrumentals bust in. I have almost never heard such a brutally pounding and mechanical beat. This makes me think of a robot factory, and this setting would be consistent with being "made up of wires" as Reznor referenced in "The Becoming". I find that the song drags on and will get old after a while, but the beat really is entrancing, and the imagery is effectively disgusting. The song is about our main character, and interestingly enough being with her is the last main act he will complete in his life. He describes his whore, both beautiful and disgusting, in a way that could easily apply to his own life. Both beautiful and infected, diseased and desirable, this describes how the protagonist feels about both the prostitute and his own existence. Fresh off this horrible yet gorgeous mistake, the character faces death by his own hands.
Starting with "The Downward Spiral", the album enters a coma and never returns. The track begins with another noise that I attribute to mechanics. It is one of the loneliest and bleakest sounds you will ever hear. I think of it as a slowly spinning windmill, the gears in a giant clock slowly turning. No matter what, I can still hear the machinery moving from "Reptile". But this movement, this flow of time and rhythym, speaks of death and a bitter end. We confront this suddenly. Featuring some incredibly sinister, vocal fry whispers from Reznor, as well as some awesome background screams, we see our protagonist bleed out, "a lifetime of ***ing up fixed in one determined flash". It's that simple. Didn't you see it coming?
Thus we transition into the award-winning "Hurt", the closer of the album. I think of this track as the discourse the character would have as he leaves his earthly body, or looks down on his life and the people he has left. His parting words in this regard are: "You could have it all, my empire of dirt/I will let you down, I will make you hurt". Through the sad acoustic guitar pokes the electric guitar, this one instance where we feel the emotional crescendo that appears so many times in the album. And with "I will make you hurt", we lose it forever. Our character closes with "If I could start again, a million miles away/I would keep myself, I would find a way". An incredibly bittersweet ending that you can only do justice by hearing. Reznor gives hope for humanity, for the meaning of life, in this. The character doesn't mean he would merely force himself to live, to not succumb to the embrace of suicide. Rather, he means to keep all that is beautiful and pure about his human nature to begin with. Sex, drugs, violence, hatred, it is not struggling to fight these, or even succumb to them sometimes, that will bring a man down. It is joining their side and beginning the downward spiral that will inevitably end you. Through this, Trent Reznor completes an album that so accurately and fully encapsulates the downfall of human spirit that, if you ever sense yourself trapped in the downward spiral, you can perfectly relate to this album.
The Downward Spiral remains an excellent commentary on society, a horribly beautiful capturing of human depression, and a devestatingly effective piece of musical art. Robert Bork was an idiot when he used "Big Man With A Gun" to represent the degradation of our society. Trent presents this to show what weapons have turned our society into. Many criminals turn cowardly when they don't have that gun in their hands anymore. What's more frightening is when the gun is in the protagonist's own hands. The irreparable damage he has done to himself serves as a warning to humanity; the concluding line of the album truly speaks to this. We have the power to avoid our downward spiral. But despite the bitter and sadly predictable ending, it was a remarkable journey.Neither the brilliant experimental ambience of The Fragile, nor the thinly veiled call to the mainstream that was With Teeth, nor the incredibly deep concept album Year Zero tried to be, have matched this LP. Nine Inch Nails moved on and has attempted many different concepts, never returning to the aggressive and hopelessly depressed vibe this album will envelop you in, but that makes it all the more beautiful. You may not like sad, but don't pass on this album. It tells you far more about yourself than you could imagine.