“Trent is God!” shouted the chorus of ’94 kids. Who, Trent Reznor? From that electronic band? Why was he God all of a sudden, and what happened to Eric Clapton?
The Downward Spiral happened, and Trent Reznor had a legitimate claim to genius now. Though not as immediate as Pretty Hate Machine, nor as heavy as Broken, The Downward Spiral was complex and layered beyond those other two albums. At 65 minutes it was ambitious, stratified and diverse beyond Reznor’s earlier works. It is an angsty semi-autobiographical concept album about a literal downward spiral, through drugs, religion, violence, ending with nothing left. Most importantly it was magnetic. You could not stop listening to it. Its impact was inevitable. Angry young kids got it.
Opening with the sound of a severe beating from the movie THX-1138, “Mr. Self Destruct” soon explodes with guitars, static, whispers, and vocals buried deep in the mix. All ingredients expertly mixed in a jarring cacophony that is anything but. Whatever is going on in this song, the riff kicks ass and the soupy mix just makes it heavier. Then suddenly, everything drops out and Trent whispers “You let me do this to you (I am the exit),” an abstract lyric that still manages to chill the bones. It all explodes again, with layers of heavy building and building until once again they suddenly stop, and loops of guitars take you out. Adrian Belew contributed guitar.
The most minimalist song in construction was also one of the more popular: “Piggy”. It’s a sparse construction of bass and beat, with some adornment from keyboards and samples of what sounds like screaming. This song increases in tension. There’s no serious release of the tension until “Heresy”, which explodes once more with heavy. A distorted, underwater Reznor sings in a creepily catchy falsetto while the fattest of synth beats pound in behind. Then suddenly he bellows, “God is dead, and no one cares! If there is a hell, I’ll see you there!” And the 1994 children of nihilism raised their fists in gleeful despair. An album highlight.
First single “March of the Pigs” is sloppily heavy; a staggering beat and a lot of distorted yelling. A big fat keyboard lick in behind, and suddenly the tune just blows up. The samples create the ambience of a screaming audience. Trent’s distorted singing (different on every song) is strangely compelling and it makes it that much more powerful when he sings clean.
We arrive at the most irritating song, and also one of the most popular: “Closer”. Notable only for the chorus of “I wanna fuck you like an animal”, it has a danceable quality but this song is really only for the novelty.
“Ruiner” is an interesting deep cut with a solid beat and catchy synth. Trent seems really pissed off, just before the song transforms into a synthy anthem of destruction. A cool distorted backwards-sounding guitar solo defies convention. The refrain of “nothing can stop me now” recurs from “Piggy”, reminding us that this is indeed a concept album. Then the sound of screaming backs “The Becoming”, another deep cut with intense lyrics of internal struggles. There’s a haunting acoustic chill-out, but it doesn’t last. This is some of Trent’s most twisted and brilliant production.
Drums, piano and heavy riffing create an uncomfortable balance on “I Do Not Want This” and Trent’s chorus of “Don’t you tell me how I feel!” resonated. A wild drum beat and another guitar riff brings on “Big Man With A Gun”, the shortest song at only a minute and a half. But it’s a hell of a minute and a half. A bit heavy on the phallic references, but hey. Then suddenly everything cools down on the instrumental “A Warm Place”. Truly one of Reznor’s greatest constructions, “A Warm Place” quietly comforts us after all the shouting and screaming. The layers of audible warmth have melody and delicacy that other songs tend to avoid.
“Eraser” spits and whines, before the drums wake the dead and some odd sounding guitars make their entrance. “Eraser” slowly builds, until Reznor comes in screaming with a riff from hell. There is so much going on in some of these songs that it is easy to forget how riff-heavy they can be. On Broken, the riffs were often the main feature. On Downward, the riffs are accompanied by other major parts to the whole construction.
The lengthy “Reptile” uses the sound of a Polaroid camera to great rhythmic effect. This sound is a pounder with a nasty bite. “You have the blood of reptile, just underneath the skin,” accuses Reznor to someone he clearly does not care for anymore. It’s an angry song among many angry songs, but also a clear standout.
A familiar melody from “Closer” recurs on the acoustic portion of “The Downward Spiral”. To say “acoustic” is of course silly; that refers only to the acoustic guitar sitting among the Beatles-esque soundscape of loops. Just past halfway, the song goes completely nuclear with screams, whispers and distorted instruments, all buried as if underwater.
This symphony of cacophony transitions into the most famous song. Reznor once acquiesced that “Hurt” was now Johnny Cash’s song, but they can certainly co-exist as uniquely brilliant, each in their own way. Nine Inch Nails utilize piano, strange guitars that sound out of tune, and wind-like samples that make it sound as if you’re on the surface of Mars. Like many of the songs on The Downward Spiral, “Hurt” builds and builds and builds like a tantrum. Reznor’s pained lead vocal is only one of many enticing pieces of the whole. What Cash did, remarkably in fact, was to take “Hurt” and figure out how to make it work as an acoustic ballad. What Reznor did was conclude his magnum opus with its best song, and most impactful.
On a personal anecdote, The Downward Spiral was one of the more irritating albums for us to stock as a used CD back in the day. It is housed in a slimline CD single case with its own inner sleeve, and outside that was a different cardboard sleeve and a gorgeous lyric book. The lyric book itself is loaded with cool imagery, but it seems a lot of people lost or tossed it, along with the outer cardboard sleeve. We had two or three different price points for the album depending on how complete it was. The worst were the customizers who would cut out the outer sleeve to fit it inside a standard jewel case. Eventually we just started to pass on copies that didn’t come with all the stuff.
The Downward Spiral is industrial music, progressive rock, heavy metal, and punk rock filtered through the unique ear of a man getting out some serious deep-down kind of stuff. There’s a lot of audible pain. Yet it is certainly more complex than that, both lyrically and sonically. Is Trent God? No — but he is an artist and this is a brilliant piece of art.
The Downward Spiral is also available in a 2 CD deluxe edition that we will look at in the future!