The Downward Spiral Turns 20
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.