Reevaluating NINE INCH NAILS – Part 4: The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails’ second LP was released on March 4, 1994. It has been certified three-times Platinum in Canada, and four-times Platinum in the United States.

When trying to identify the absolute crest of the alternative rock wave that swept the world in the nineties, 1994 has an arguable shot at holding the title. The popularity of the music had never been higher, bands were still getting signed at a ludicrous pace for dubious reasons, and nothing else had really begun to build up the steam needed to topple the alt explosion. A few years later, the Spice Girls and similar pop groups would rule the day, but in 1994, alternative was king.

Just take a look at the list of albums released in 1994. It is a veritable who’s who of legendary bands and bands that I’m sure you’ve forgotten about. I know many of them from front to back. But I doubt that I know any of them quite as well as I know The Downward Spiral.

Presumably spurred on by the giddy thrill of hearing the word “fuck” so many times (in a sexual context, no less) in a ubiquitous hit single, I got my hands on this record as a teen and devoured it. It was dense, dark, scary stuff to me at the time. I covered my notebooks with NIN logos and wrote down lyrics about pigs in the margins of my math homework. I could probably write this review without even revisiting each track, but that would prevent me from getting to listen to it again as I write this. So let’s get into the break down.

Mr. Self-Destruct
I wish someone had been there to take a picture of me the first time I popped this album into the ol’ CD player and hit play. The album’s opening, with its accelerating… uh… “hit” sound, paired with what sounds like a man moaning and crying still gets under my skin. I’m not sure how I reacted when the proper song kicked in unexpectedly that very first time and voices started telling me that they control me, but it is a fair bet that I considered turning the album off immediately and retreat to… 54/40 or something.

This song is still fantastic. An absolute wall of mechanical noise and static bookend a lonely and haunted bridge section, giving the listener a taste of the polar extremes that exist on this album. It is propulsive and as heavy as all get out. The snarl of guitar noodles that end off the track are unlike anything I’d heard at the time and I’m not sure that I’ve heard anything since that has been so surprising to me.

This song scared the shit out of me as a kid and it still rules.

Something completely different, as they say. “Piggy” cools down the vibe considerably, and its icy groove and “pig piggy pig pig pig” vocal work are brilliantly catchy and effective, and the strangeness of the accompanying sonic effects throughout ensure that it remains as unsettling as anything else on the album.

This song may actually be more frightening to me as an adult. I find the “nothing can stop me now, ’cause I don’t care anymore” refrain to be incredibly chilling. I’m sure that when I was a kid, I thought “Yeah, cool, I don’t care either! Fuck yeah!” I care a lot now, about a lot of things, and the idea of someone feeling unstoppable because they’ve let go of caring sounds terrifying to me.

Huge props to the incomprehensibly disintegrating “drum solo” on the back half of this song. What a great song!

This might be controversial, but this song kind of makes me roll my eyes a little. The whole anti-Christian angle seems put-on in a fairly blatant attempt to be provocative. It’s fun to hear Trump Reznards sink his teeth into singing “Your god is dead, and no one cares”, but it feels very calculated and cartoon-ish to me.

Some great elements to mention about this song, though. The guitar line in the second verse is completely brilliant and this song stands as the most four-on-the-floor example of the “industrial” sound on the album so far.

“Heresy” has never been a favourite of mine, but it’s a decent album track.

March of the Pigs
I’ve listened to this song somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven thousand times.

This track is the most famous use of 7/8 time that I can think of. When I was younger, I just thought that there was something wrong with the beat, but that the something wrong sounded so very right. Now I know that it’s just a very cool time signature. The bass & drum groove at the top of the song is still perfect and was a huge influence on the kinds of music I would seek out later on.

This song is catchy as hell, and the joke-y piano part is as disturbing as it is hilarious. I could write a whole post just about this one song.

It is the best.

I’m sure that I heard “Closer” before I heard “Hurt”, and both of those songs convinced me to purchase this album in the first place.

“Closer” was an inescapable single. I think that it is probably still played on “Modern Rock Radio” as often as “Head Like A Hole” is, which is impressive given its explicit content and the length of the instrumental outro segment.

When writing about this song, people tend to focus on its lyrical content and the impact of the “I wanna fuck you like an animal” vocal hook, but I feel as though more attention ought to be paid to the sheer expanse of perfect synth sounds at play on this track. From the obscene, burping bass line to the creepy carnival sounds that invade the second chorus, this song is a sonic masterpiece. Every layer of audio is brilliant and each could be the principal track of a lesser song. Together, it is a heady, swirling nightmare.

It’s often cool to make a statement about an album’s most popular song not being the “best song”, but it’s hard to argue that any song on this album (or any of NIN’s albums) sounds much better than this. It’s a hell of a song.

“Ruiner” continues this album’s exploration of how to be both terrifying and catchy at the same time. The triumphant synths that tower over the choruses sound like newly-arrived alien overlords marching toward the listener while the subjugate all humans in their path. Alright, that’s a little much. But I really like it.

This album is so weird. The chill-out guitar solo section in the bridge is just so odd, but it works perfectly.

I love this song. Holy smokes, this record is dark, though.

The Becoming
This song has the album’s scariest samples, which is really saying something. The loop of people screaming is terrifying. I would hate it if I didn’t love it so much.

Plenty of interesting material at work in this song, but it really comes together for me when the “industrial” trappings fall away to reveal an acoustic guitar playing while a bunch of folks are seemingly humming beside a camp fire. Haha. What is this album.

This song is pretty great!

I Do Not Want This
This is the first song on this album that feels a little half-baked to me. Lots of great moments, but it reads like a 12 year old’s diary and the song’s different segments are abruptly opposed in a way that sounds more accidental than purposeful. Also, any song that gives this much space for Tribble Ribbler to read spoken-word poetry isn’t going to wind up being a favourite of mine.

Insane guitar sounds in the instrumental interludes, though. Wow.

Big Man With A Gun
This song made me feel very uncomfortable as a teen, because it felt like I was listening to something very nasty and wrong. I understood the satirical intent of the lyrics, but it still seemed a little to… dirty and mean? 20 years later, and I’m still feeling that this song is largely a misfire. Luckily, it is only a minute and a half long.

A Warm Place
I completely missed the point of this track in the nineties and I hated it. Now I love it. I suppose it makes sense that I have more patience now than a teenager might. This is perhaps the one track on this album where the melodic prettiness at play underneath so many of the tracks is allowed to escape the clutches of the snarling ugliness that lurks around every other corner. This is an essential track to this album.

Like “Big Man With A Gun”, “Eraser” is more of a sketch than a proper song. Unlike that song, however, I feel as though “Eraser” works as an effective exercise in building tension. The song swells and explodes and winds up feeling completely hypnotic. So many of these songs actually feel like someone fighting hard to remain sober. Take that, Tool. You hacks.

This is a song in which Terry Razor seems to mostly be saying “Get thee away from me, devil woman!”, and as such it comes off as a rather mean-spirited and misogynistic. I even thought this 20+ years ago, so it’s even more potently apparent now.

That being said, this song has a good hook and that monster robot sound paired with the machine-gun hi hats are totally amazing. Not to mention yet another killer guitar riff that enters at the second verse.

So call this one a win-lose.

The Downward Spiral
This song takes the piano theme that closes off “Closer” and covers it in flies and leaves it out in the sun to rot. That sounds gross, but trust me – it is amazing.

The “lyrics” to this track always really bothered me. In the mid-90s, following the suicide of Kurt Cobain, I was always entranced by mentions of suicide and terrified by them. The treatment of the subject in this song doesn’t exactly seem trite, but it doesn’t feel entirely respectful either. This album is bleak and everything, but I’m not sure that necessarily demands that it needs to end with “oooh, edgy, suicide” stuff.

Luckily, this album’s true closer is perhaps one of the greatest songs about pain ever written. Everyone has heard this song, whether it be this version or the Johnny Cash cover version. This song is a real bummer, but it is essentially perfect.

When I was younger, I remember being annoyed by the damaged sound of this song’s production and preferred the “clean version” found on the Further Down The Spiral remix album, as it presented a more straightforward take of what I thought was a very pretty song. Now I greatly prefer the dirt and grime and terror-ending of this version.

This song is very brilliant and very sad.

Trent Reznor 1994 Fashion Round-Up

1994 sees our hero embracing his rightful place on the throne of Leather Jacket Goth Fuck-God. He’s basically Elvis, but instead of shaking his hips at the young ladies in the audience, he reads some poems about living as dirt and flashes them a sexy frown.

apple-reznorYou may not think that our boy looks good in this gutsy ensemble of mud and excrement at Woodstock ’94, but I think he looks like the shit.

Never too busy brooding to chip in with the dishes. Ladies?

The Verdict

Lol @ this GIF.

I went into this review expecting to say something at the end along the lines of “Holy smokes, guys! This is a perfect album!” Listening to it from front to back, though, I’m forced to admit that it isn’t perfect. It’s very, very good. One of the best of the era for certain.

There are a few corners of the album that seem a little dated and kind of pointlessly provocative, and a couple of tracks that aren’t as well thought-out as some of the others drag the album out a little longer than it maybe needed to have been. It is difficult to say what a “perfect LP” even looks like, and I can name very few of them.

The Downward Spiral is unquestionably an immense achievement, and it sounds remarkably good to this day. The production is brilliant and as a cohesive “concept album”, it certainly hangs together in both narrative and mood. This is not a happy album. I love it, but listening to it closely from start to finish has got me feeling pretty bummed out.

Good thing I get to listen to Phil Collins next week.

Author: markmeeks

squid goals

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