No matter what music met your personal tastes and preferences in the 90’s, there were a few iconic albums that defined that decade. In the early 90’s there was Nirvana’s album Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins released the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Radiohead put out OK Computer just to name a few landmark albums among many others. However, there is one album in my mind that is flawless from beginning to end, is both angry and beautiful at the same time, and was well received by damn near everyone. This album is NIN’s The Downward Spiral. While I am certain many readers will disagree with my choice for “best album of the 90’s” (which is expected), there is no denying that Trent Reznor established a permanent place in rock history with this release and the radio singles off this record are at least vaguely recognizable to fans of any musical genre. From the synth/heartbeat dance rhythm of Closer to the haunting beauty of the album’s final song Hurt, the influence this album had is obvious. Respected artists such as Johnny Cash and Tori Amos have covered songs from this album and Reznor has received praise from other well established musicians such as David Bowie for his impact on music. This album is an industrial album, but the beauty is that listeners do not need to be fans of the genre to enjoy this record.
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The Downward Spiral, released in 1994, is a concept album that displays the thoughts, actions, and emotions of a man whose life is collapsing around him. His problems stem from various sources such as drug abuse and a dying relationship while he attempts to blame his problems on everyone from his significant other to God himself until he is struck with a moment of clarity. Realizing he has no one left to blame the events of his life on, the he finally accepts the responsibility of his actions and understands that he himself is the one who chose to make the decisions that ruined his life. With nothing left to live for and suffering from deep depression, the character raises a gun to his head and ends his life. Needless to say that the album is very emotional and bleak, but every song has a purpose and there are also no weak tracks. Even the one track I initially did not like, Big Man With A Gun, that once sounded like an ego-trip piece of filler has a place on this record. On its own, this track is not anything jaw dropping, but when listened to in context it develops more meaning and significance. Each song is a little cog operating with one another inside a large machine.
One thing that helps strengthen the songs on The Downward Spiral is lyrics either describing vivid imagery or conveying raw emotion. On The Becoming, Reznor describes the characters transition into a reclusve lifestyle using metaphors that resemble split personality disorder while depicting humans (body and feelings) as mechanical. “That me that you know used to have feelings /But the blood has stopped pumping and he's left to decay /The me that you know is now made up of wires /And even when I'm right with you I'm so far away”are some of the lyrics used to represent the characters disconnection from the world he lives in which is both poetic and chilling. In another song, Piggy, listeners get a chance to see through the eyes of the character and see how he views the world. Referring to people as pigs, Reznor sings of bruises, broken bones, and failure as the swine seemingly harmed the character and casts society as filthy animals in this slow bass driven song. Broken spirits and rage are perfectly captured in one simple reoccurring line throughout the song, “Nothing can stop me now, because I don’t care.” Finally, there is another song I think deserves lyrical praise titled I Do Not Want This. There are two voiceovers (for lack of a better word) by Reznor during the pre choruses of the song that are as detailed and sad as they are intriguing. “I'm always falling down the same hill, bamboo puncturing this skin /And nothing comes bleeding out of me just like a waterfall I'm drowning in/ Two feet below the surface I can still make out your wavy face /And if I could just reach you maybe I could leave this place”is a small example of what is in store.
Another vital component of this record is the range of sound and style that the album has to match the range of emotion presented within the lyrics. This album demonstrates Reznor’s ability to make various rock, dance, industrial, and peaceful songs and coordinate a coherent and smooth record from these genres of music. Mr. Self Destruct is a straight forward hard rock song full of distorted riffs, disturbing lyrics, breakdowns, and tempo changes while ending in storm of static guitar solo fuzz. Closer, the most recognizable song due to the “f*ck you like an animal” chorus, is rooted in dance/electric club music making it a smart pick for a hit single. Closer also contains what I consider to be “The Downward Spiral Sound” in its closing piano notes. This melody is repeated several times throughout the album in other songs like Piggy and The Downward Spiral in similar timing and rhythm. This musical pattern is the most memorable component music wise to me and in best displayed within the last few seconds of Closer. Moving on, Reptile is one of the more true industrial songs off of the album with operating machine noises used primarily as melody creating a backdrop to lyrics of a dehumanized and strained relationship. Still diversifying, A Warm Place, is a soothing instrumental that is as comforting as its title suggests. It is the only ray of sunshine on an otherwise considerably dark album. No matter what musical preferences within rock music, The Downward Spiral likely has something that will suit most styles.
All of these elements that I have previously mentioned blend well on several songs during the album, but none better than on the track Eraser. The music is dark and primarily noise based as sample sounds of metal scrapping together (although bed springs would fit the theme) and a tired wheezing noise set the tone for this song. The lyrics are short but elegant and there is no chorus which varies the song structure nicely. The theme of the song, an allusion towards rape, is as destructive and disturbing as anything I have heard NIN write about. The subtle strangeness of the song slowly shifts into a heavy metal song carnage of pounding guitars and authoritative vocals. This song absolutely delivers in every aspect and can be listened to many times before it begins to sound old. It is hard to choose a favorite song off of the album, but this would certainly be my pick.
The Downward Spiral is a 65 minute trip into the mind of an emotional unstable individual complete with amazing lyrics and addictive music. This concept album is NIN’s finest work (barely edging out The Fragile) and really helped bring industrial rock to mainstream culture in the 90’s. Some classic songs have come off this album and have been covered by a handful of other artists with esteemed musical careers as well. Even if you disagree that there were better albums from the 90’s, The Downward Spiral deserves a listen and is truly an iconic rock album.
Track listing: 1. Mr. Self Destruct, 2. Piggy, 3. Heresy, 4. March Of The Pigs, 5. Closer, 6. Ruiner, 7. The Becoming, 8. I Do Not Want This, 9. Big Man With A Gun, 10. A Warm Place, 11. Eraser, 12. Reptile, 13. The Downward Spiral, 14. Hurt
Personnel: Trent Reznor – Vocals/ All Instruments/ Producer
Favorite songs (In order, if I had to pick a top 5): Eraser, Hurt, The Becoming, Closer, and Mr. Self Destruct