One of the more intense albums I have encountered on this journey is “The Downward Spiral” by Nine Inch Nails. At this stage in my life, I could not have been further removed from the world of heavy industrial rock, so most of this music was pretty unfamiliar to me, other than the defining song of their album and their career, “Closer”. I’m also a bit murky using the term “they”, as Nine Inch Nails was essentially Trent Reznor, who wrote and performed almost all of the music on the record. He was assisted by producer Mark Ellis, better known as “Flood”, and the omnipresent Adrian Belew served as a guitar consultant and contributor on this record, but for the most part, this is the work of Mr. Reznor. This album is rated #122 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
My overall reaction is one of growing appreciation. This record is definitely an acquired taste, and not one that can be experienced as a casual listener. It is the antithesis of many records I have identified as perfect background music. The urgency of these songs requires your full attention, and if you aren’t all in, it is likely to just strike you as unnecessary noise.
However, if you give it all of your time and attention, my guess is you will walk away as a fan, if you weren’t one already. We are on a roll of albums centering on depression and darkness, and this one is no exception. If you guessed that the album’s title referred to one’s descent in to the darkest corners of life, contemplating the merits of life vs. death, you would be corret. Reznor himself was deeply conflicted and battling depression when he recorded this album, and if you need further evidence of where his head was at, he actually moved into 10050 Cielo Drive near Los Angeles to record this album. Does that address sound familiar? If so, it is probably because it is the home Sharon Tate and several others were brutally murdered by the Charles Manson family.
There are few rays of sunshine here, as we crush through the opening tracks “Mr. Self Destruct”, “Piggy”, and “Heresy”, where Reznor declares “God is dead, And no one cares… If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.” Next comes the raging “March of the Pigs”, with these really odd but intriguing piano-voice solos.
“Closer” then pulses into the mix, and even to the novice, that opening beat is pretty recognizable. If you aren’t familiar, “Closer” is one of the most overtly and expressively sexual songs I have ever heard. No need to go much further, but this song is not about the “making love” end of the spectrum.
“Ruiner” is another of my favorites on the record, it has a great keyboard vibe to it that almost takes you back to the world of Depeche Mode before Reznor unleashes his fury. It really is a titanic song as it ebbs and flows.
The rest of the album is truly a descending spiral of emotion, and a track like “A Warm Place” captures that feeling of emptiness and cold, before softening and warming with the aura of hope as the song evolves. I don’t know if I have heard music that pulls at you quite like this since some of Pink Floyd’s best work on “The Wall”, but it really does hit home.
After hitting rock bottom on the second to last song, which is the title track, the final song “Hurt”, wallows in that wreckage of pain, yet like “A Warm Place”, it slowly evolves into a track that offers some hope for a brighter future, even as it leaves you alone and isolated in feeling and sound. I know these descriptions may be hard to reconcile or envision, but I think they accurately reflect the change in moods Reznor was aiming for on this surprisingly impactful album. I never really knew what I was missing here, but this album will be an important add to my mix going forward.