Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

For all his charisma and sinew and theatrical flair, Trent Reznor was a deeply unlikely rock star — more unlikely, even, than his mixed-up gaggle of early-’90s peers. Reznor was a keyboard nerd from Ohio with milk-paste Midwestern skin and an undying fascination with video games. Especially early on, he learned more musically from the Human League and Gary Numan than from, say, Zeppelin, and it took “Head Like A Hole” to trick consumers into thinking Pretty Hate Machine, his debut, was some kind of metal album, rather than a synthpop one. Moreover, Reznor came from industrial, a genre that was allergic to rock stardom, a sado-masochistic pummel with a very specific and frightening underground fanbase. As Eric Weisbard writes in 1995′s great SPIN Alternative Record Guide, industrial frontmen tended to play “carnival barker” rather than letting the audience in — Ministry’s Al Jourgenson being the great example — and Reznor almost seemed embarrassed, at first, to use the singular first-person pronoun in his lyrics.

But then, the transition to rock stardom was rough on that entire early-’90s crew. It was too much for Kurt Cobain’s ravaged mind and body to handle, and Pearl Jam’s prolonged battle against Ticketmaster, while admirable, was also something of a spotlight-retreat, and probably an intentional one. Stone Temple Pilots always came off like crass careerists, not artists to be taken seriously, and there was almost an apology in the way they carried themselves. Even the Beastie Boys — who came from rap, where world-conquering ambition was a prerequisite for stardom — had folded back in on themselves and created their own pocket universe by the time they made Check Your Head. Ambition — grand, stadium-sized ambition — was not a cool thing for a rock band to aspire to in those days; Billy Corgan was the lone arena-dreamer on the scene. And so Trent Reznor’s transition into what he became on The Downward Spiral is absolutely remarkable. The Downward Spiral is a fully considered, far-reaching, moment-embodying statement, a self-conscious grab for the brass ring, something that absolutely reshaped the world for millions of high school kids. The Downward Spiral was the reason it was cool, for a minute there, for teenagers to wear ripped-up fishnets on their arms, and it was the reason we went through a temporary period of blatant Reznor imitators finding radio footholds — Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward, Filter (the latter led by an actual former NIN sideman). It was a big deal. And I’d argue that it holds up better than just about any big album of its era.

Pretty Hate Machine will probably always by my favorite NIN album, since it’s the one that most fullly inhabits its sound and its lonely-kid frustrations. But when Lollapalooza crowds treated Nine Inch Nails like a rock band, they had to learn how to become one, and they did it quite effectively on the Broken EP. (“Wish,” as I see it, was basically a metal-songwriting experiment, and hoo boy was it ever successful. If you’ve seen Dillinger Escape Plan cover it live, you know what it does to a roomful of math-metal maniacs.) And so on The Downward Spiral, Reznor had to pull all these divergent tendencies — toward clattering industrial chaos, toward grand synthpop pathos, toward cocksure larger-than-life kinda-metal stardom — and fashion them into something resembling a coherent whole. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. Take, for example, “Reptile,” with its titanic brontosaurus riff and its gibbering-cricket background noises and its rhythmic robotic whirs. It’s an experiment in clanking, blundering industrial overload, but it’s also a fiery, beautifully structured arena-metal song. Its lyrics, with Reznor moaning kinda-misogynist nonsense about a beautiful liar and a precious whore, essentially apply the Black Sabbath “War Pigs” school of theatrical bullshit to an idea about heartbreak. But there’s still beauty in the song — the crystalline piano that comes in during one of the quieter breaks, for instance. And then there’s Reznor’s voice, which even still today sounds like a teenager’s impotent tantruming and which brought the whole ungainly thing close to home; we could hear ourselves in that voice.

That idea of balance, of warring ideas finding some kind of harmony, was key to The Downward Spiral. “March Of The Pigs” is the album’s loudest and fastest and maybe ugliest song, but it still has those piano breaks, those moments of beautiful calm before the maelstrom gets going again. Meanwhile, “Hurt,” probably the album’s most enduring non-”Closer” song, builds to that masterful metal-smashing-into-metal churn by the end. It’s almost a cliche, at this point, for people to claim that Johnny Cash’s death-haunted cover of the song, is the superior rendition, and certainly Cash brought a gravity to it that Reznor could never hope to approach. But the Nine Inch Nails version of the song has that dynamic, slow-building arrangement; it has drama. Reznor sounded ravaged and disbelieving, while Cash seemed to be accepting his fate in real time. And in Reznor’s version, there was the persistent threat that some horrible noise could burst into the song at any moment, like the Kool-Aid Man. That’s how Reznor kept the tension in his music; in the prettiest moments, ugliness was always right around the corner, and vice versa.

And then there’s “Closer,” maybe the least intentional strip-club anthem of all time. I’m sure Reznor knew that “Closer” was going to be huge; nobody ever went broke overestimating how much adolescents like to yell the word “fuck” at each other. But “Closer” was revelatory in a few other ways. For one there, there’s its basic creepy prurience. A band like Pearl Jam would never so much acknowledge the existence of sex in their lyrics, but here Reznor had put together an entire throbbing, wracked dance song about how simultaneously gross and awesome sex is. On “Closer,” Reznor sounds repelled by his own body in the way that just about every major star of the day did, but he also sounds like he’s being sucked in, in a way that none of them did. He sounds like he wants it, and that alone was enough to turn him into a sex symbol back in the day. The song also pulled off the near-impossible feat of getting a disco pulse onto alt-rock radio, and it’s tough to imagine the electronica boom of 1997 happening without Reznor’s precedent. To this day, I’m convinced that Daft Punk built an entire early career on those synthetic drum sounds from the intro.

And if “Closer” was the closest thing the alt-rock era had to a “Girls Girls Girls,” it also made cool a certain form of vinyl-sticky transgression that came to define vast chunks of the era’s popular culture and to permanently redefine the term “goth.” In December 1994, Reznor brought his Further Down The Spiral tour to the Baltimore Arena, and my parents wouldn’t let me go. I can still remember the searing, unendurable envy I felt toward the hordes of kids who showed up to class the next day in NIN shirts. That show was all anyone talked about afterwards. Reznor’s protege Marilyn Manson opened the show (he’d been recording his debut Portrait Of An American Family while Reznor made The Downward Spiral), and the things Manson did on that stage immediately became the stuff of lunchroom legend. The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow also performed, extending a weird mid-’90s moment where theatrical nastiness was honestly just as important as music. (It’s why the “Closer” video was as important as it was, and it’s the reason Reznor was able to cannily make Nine Inch Nails such catnip to rebellious kids.) If I’m remembering the stories right, Nine Inch Nails turned the arena dark and showed a time-lapse video of a fox corpse decaying during “Hurt.” Kids excitedly showed off mosh-pit bruises in the back of math class. That show was very much a thing, and I reconstructed my own version of it just from hearing all the stories my friends told about it. It was that kind of show: If you didn’t go, you needed to hear every last detail from the people who did.

That level of enthusiasm for what Reznor was doing changed music. In the years after The Downward Spiral, plenty of acts rose to stardom who never would’ve had a chance otherwise. The Prodigy. Korn. Rammstein. Linkin Park. History has not treated all of these groups especially well. But the album’s influence still lingers, in some unlikely places. On Yeezus, last year’s most acclaimed album, Kanye West learned a ton about clanking grandeur from Reznor. Arcade Fire almost certainly took a ton of their overwhelming drama from the album, and Win Butler’s Suburbs-era haircut absolutely marks him as a fan. Eminem started his breakout single asking if we wanted to stick nine inch nails through each one of his eyelids, and his enduring disenfranchised bluster may well have its roots in what Reznor was doing. In recent years, Reznor has taken Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky and TV On The Radio and HEALTH on the road as openers, and it’s easy to hear where Reznor would hear bits of himself in any of them. Even without those bands, though, The Downward Spiral would still hold up just fine. It’s a complicated monster unto itself.

I have my own memories of the album’s dominance, but you probably have yours, too. So what’s your favorite song on the album? What memories does it evoke? Do you hear traces of the album in any other music coming out now? Take it to the comments section. In the meantime, let’s watch some videos.

Comments (42)
  1. One of my favorite memories: I worked as a dj at a college radio station in Montana when this album came out. I remeber playing Reptile and turning up the monitors in the studio as loud as they would go and singing/screaming along. This whole album is burned into my brain on a very deep level. It is a one of a kind masterpiece. That March of the Pigs video blew my mind as well.

  2. That’s a serious bummer your parents didn’t let you go to that show. I had a similar experience, a couple years later, when Marilyn Manson’s AntiChrist Superstar tour rolled through town and I wasn’t allowed to go. But I went to a predominantly Filipino Catholic school, where rap and r&b were the reigning genres, and no one was too excited about that show. I was considered a bit weird for liking bands like Manson and NIN, given the media hysteria surrounding their lyrics and their weird ass music videos. Both those bands were pivotal when I was 12/13, but it’s really weird and intense music for a kid to be listening to. My mom hid my Manson and NIN CDs from me (which I found, immediately). My english teacher pulled me aside and asked if I was Satantist (Catholic school, remember)…

    Manson and NIN, for me, were inextricably linked at the time. Downward Spiral eventually won over. Maybe it’s the way Reznor has matured and produced great music since then (and Manson hasn’t) that has coloured my opinion of DS as a far, far superior album to Antichrist. It’s a far superior album to MOST albums released that year. It still holds up live – March of the Pigs, late 2013 = mind exploding.

  3. The Downward Spiral album/tour will definitely go down in (my) history as one of my most formative periods. As a teen I came to industrial music from the Head Like a Hole video showing on Headbanger’s Ball and was instantly won over. I had never seen anything like that before and this proved to be my gateway drug in to a whole new culture (even if Reznor was only the gatekeeper ). By the time TDS came out, I had begun making my own music (with heavy NIN influences), but this was for me the pinnacle of what music could be- raw, emotional, ugly and beautiful simultaneously all focused through the lens of a concept album. This was Pink Floyd’s The Wall for my generation. And then there was the live show… And like The Wall it still holds up many years after release. I still have pieces of one of those shattered DX7s that Trent smashed nightly.

  4. This album got me through high school, period. I have a feeling I’m not the only one here who that’s true for.

  5. So tough to pick a favorite, but I think it’s “Reptile” (fittingly so)

    I flew to New York to see NIN at Terminal 5 for Wave Goodbye (the last date “Primary Colours” era Horrors opened) and Peter Murphy came out to sing “Reptile”. It was my first time hearing the song live and I was a little disappointed. His approach to the song was very different from the version Trent sings on the album. Thankfully, Mr. Murphy redeemed himself 100% in the encore when they covered Joy Division’s “Dead Souls”, but I digress.

    “The Downward Spiral” was my wingman during the hardest year of my life. I was basically bummed out and depressed for a whole year for circumstances I won’t go into. The shit-kickers on that album (“Mr. Self Destruct” / “March of the Pigs” / “Big Man with a Gun”) spoke to me the most. I think the part on this album that makes it so, so unique is that transition from “Big Man with a Gun” into “A Warm Place” when it shifts into the final act of the album. The way it builds back up through “Eraser” and into my aforementioned favorite track before unraveling completely. That’s some masterful execution.

    Because of my love of this album, I always wished and dreamed I could see it performed live in its entirety. Thinking it would never happen, but wishing all the same. So imagine my reaction sitting in line for Terminal 5 overhearing that 24 HOURS EARLIER he played TDS in its entirety. I almost packed up and flew home right then and there. I was crushed. I really hope he considers doing it again, but it seems like a long shot.

    Finally, “Closer” isn’t “Closer” without the full extended outro. I know the video and radio singles usually cut it off, but that song in its entirety is sheer perfection. Yes, it’s best known for its hook, but for me it’s all about that insane 2 minute outro that caused me to dance on a table this one time…

    We all know that opening beat is Iggy’s “Nightclubbin” in reverse right? Timeless.

  6. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the “closer” video when I was a kid all those years ago. Total “WTF did i just watch O__O” moment

  7. Eraser and I Do Not Want This are my favs on this album. The rest of the album is great, but those are the two songs i go back to.
    I saw NIN on this tour at MSG w/ Manson and Jim Rose. Manson left the stage after being pelted with a water bottle. Kind of a bummer, but NIN put on a great show that night.

  8. GET THIS:
    During a brotherly quarrel in the summer of ’95, my younger brother ratted out to my mom that me and my other brother (I’m a triplet) had the Downward Spiral and that there was a song called Heresy with the lyrics “God is dead and no one cares.”
    We tried to explain that we were of mind enough to know what he was talking about, but my very religious mom insisted that she see the album and its lyrics. And so we sat there while MY MOM READ THE LYRICS OF THE ENTIRE ALBUM BACK TO US.
    It was awkward.
    She insisted we destroy it, and we were barred from buying albums cuz she thought we were only gonna be listening to sketchy, anti-God stuff. We never destroyed it, but kept it hidden in a drawer with all our other NIN stuff, and eventually the same went for Marilyn Manson. We’d have friends go to record stores and buy us the singles and imports, and typically we’d have to listen in secrecy.

    Man, the teenage years.

    Still one of my all-time favorites ever. It holds up quite well after all these years. Doesn’t sound dated at all, doesn’t even sound like anything else. The title track used to scare me… at the time, to my 14-year-old senses, this was disturbing music; not like the dog-and-pony show of Manson and whatnot, but this felt like there was something really dirty hiding behind the corners. Still so goddamn good.
    Trent really had a know-how for putting industrial with the idea of songs… and there’s so much dynamic range here; it’s not just one pummel after the other… the songs keep changing, moving. The fucking guitar solo breakdown in Ruiner, for example! The last thing you’d see coming would come.
    Masterpiece. End of story.

    And anyone else feel that, despite it being electronic, all the sounds on it somehow sounded “organic” or of-the-earth… like you were listening to sounds generated by dirt and worms, not computers?

  9. One of the first bands/musicians I really got into. I remember the build up of the release of this album. I was listening to a lot of Broken which I had on cassette tape. I had one of those crappy walkmans that only had a fast forward button on it so you had to flip the tape over if you wanted to rewind. I was trying to “rewind” to one of the songs and remember hitting playing at some point on the supposed blank side of the tape and it just happened to kick into Physical and then into Suck. Talk about the power of hidden tracks. I had this tape for ever not realizing those were on there and my 13 year old mind was blown away. I could not be more excited for this album to come out.

    I read all these Guitar World articles describing what this sounded like but had no idea what was in store for me. My pre Bowie, Eno, industrial self had never heard anything like this and I ended up playing it twice in a row the first day it came out, putting of listening to Superunknown which I also bought the same day. The layers, new sounds, variations from track to track and angst was perfect for me at the time.

    I was hooked and started to collect all the Halos (do they still label NIN releases as halos). There was a record store that sold bootlegs and I remember picking up “Solid Gold Hell” and some other bootleg with pre Pretty Hate Machine material on it. I also starting collecting all nothing releases such MM (who I saw on the mentioned tour), Pop Will Eat Itself (who I saw along with NIN again on a later part of the tour), and Prick. This also got me into a lot of other industrial bands (both great and shitty) like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, KMFDM, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, along with Aphex Twin.

    A funny moment was when I traded a copy of one of the bootlegs for a VHS tape of the Broken movie. For some reason I decided to start watching it in the living room while my mother was knitting in there. Good times.

  10. “(do they still label NIN releases as halos)”

    Yup! Hesitation Marks was halo 28.

    Also, OMG on watching that Broken VHS with your mother! And I thought John’s mom reading TDS lyrics out loud was awkward…

  11. Ha! Yeah and it didn’t really help my case that I received it from a stranger I talked to online (Prodigy and bulletin board days). That conversation went over well. She was ready to turn it over to the authorities.

  12. This album brings back so many memories, fantastic from start to finish. While “Closer” is the undeniable highlight for me, I feel like “Eraser” doesn’t get enough love, it’s a fucking amazing track that’s easily my most played NIN; the sinister buildup is chilling and the screamed conclusion as cathartic and emotional as anything Reznor’s ever put to tape. And also points for Reznor’s batshit drum solo at the end of “Piggy”. I can’t say enough good things about this record.

  13. Moms and the Downward Spiral could be its own discussion, it seems like. Threw the cassette in the tape deck of the Ford Escort wagon when my mom picked me up from school. Being an open-minded, infinitely patient woman, she genuinely liked the first few songs…I knew “Closer” was coming up and of course I knew the lyrics, but I figured “screw it, let’s see what happens.” For a boy who didn’t do anything “wrong,” it was a big moment. She asked me to fast-forward the track due to the lyrics, but she liked everything else.

    Just such a big album…everything changed after it. I don’t think I’m being grandiose when I say it changed the way I looked at and reacted to the world.

  14. this show mentioned was my first concert ever (but one correction: it was the SELF DESTRUCT TOUR)

    • Differently named legs of the same tour.

      • No it wasn’t the same tour, Self-Destruct tour was from spring of 1994 until January 1995 it had two US legs, the first pre-Closer/Woodstock playing theater sized venues the second in the Fall/Winter playing arenas, I went to the Philly shows on both legs first was at the Tower second was at the Spectrum. Then in 1995 he did the Outside Tour with David Bowie during the summer that fall he did a second arena tour which was the Further Down the Spiral tour, named for the remix album that had just released.

  15. I listened to it in full before my first trip ever on an airplane when I was a teenager. I thought it was the most thrillingly produced album I’d ever heard, and to some degree, I still do. Flood and Trent were a formidable match. The production and intensity are almost unparalleled.

  16. I loved this as an angsty art-rock teen and even tried to write a few similarly-themed concept albums of my own because of it. But then when I got out of my prime angst era I went through a period where, like i still do with OK Computer, I found it to depressing and emotionally draining to really listen to.

    But then a few years later still I listened to it just to listen to it, not to wallow or anything, and ever since I have loved it again – I love just how filthy and dark and fierce and vaguely funky it is, and would put it in my top 10 of the decade for sure/

  17. Closer wasn’t the lead-off single but the modern rock stations knew it was just a monster- or at least the stations in towns where Ringfinger was a club fave. Anyhow, the day I heard them first spin it was late at night and it wasn’t bleeped or anything, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I called the DJ when I got home and asked- I thought he was saying “owl” instead of “animal” and thought TRENT THAT IS JUST WEIRD. This was SLC Utah so you know the “to God” part was like burning down the world in some quarters. Good times!

    • I remember hearing it late night without the bleeps, too. I’ve had people tell me this never happened, but you and I know, they’re wrong!

  18. The soundtrack of my worst/best teenage years.
    One day I will listen to it again, yes, I will, but not yet… no, not yet…

  19. Just like Soundgarden’s Superunknown, The Downward Spiral became my gateway into NIN. I have several memories of those two albums getting me through high school. I can still play TDS today without skipping songs. Seeing NIN live is probably the best concert experience I’ll ever do. Case in point: March of the Pigs. Random side note: as teenagers, my sister and I used to be scared of Reptile and I kind of dismissed it throughout the years. But after seeing it played live, it has become one of my favorite live NIN songs.

    But I digress….

  20. This is one of those albums where I was much more interested in the comments than the actual article (nothing against the author, though). Because I believe for those of us who really lived this album, this era, it was a transcendent, life-changing and often life-affirming experience (even through all of it’s inherent darkness). Very pleased to see exactly what I expected while reading the comments. I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. Just that I LIVED this album. Lived it for several years, in fact. It was there through good times, enjoyed with friends at parties and on road trips. But more importantly, it was there through the bad, like a favorite warm blanket that you could always crawl under to make yourself feel better. Or at the very least, feel like you had someone who felt as shitty as you did that day.

  21. Oh, the Closer film clip. So, one night, we were watching music videos after our the final night of our drama production. And the girl I liked started kissing the cool, allegedly depressed and self-proclaimed genius and alcoholic with long hair on the couch. So me and the other two people still at the after-party went out while they went at it.
    Then when they’d finished we went back in and Closer came on. THAT’S what Closer means to me – the moment my end-of-high school crush chose the older guy. In front of me. And later, still went to the formal with me. For some reason.

  22. While we’re on this anniversary thing, I note Stereogum missed the 20th year of The Spaghetti Incident? … just saying.

  23. I love RUINER. It’s sexy hate.

  24. I liked this album, but I preferred Pretty Hate Machine. NIN was something I could find in common with the depressed boys I went to high school with, so that was cool.

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