Before Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor did upstanding things like marry, procreate, get ripped, and win an Academy Award, he made one of the most upsetting, misunderstood, and enduring album of the ‘90s, “The Downward Spiral,” which turns 20 on March 8.
With bleak cover art based on a painting called “Wound,” and songs about nihilism and self-abuse, “Spiral” was never an obvious contender for 50 Cent mashups and MTV omnipresence. But it nonetheless made Reznor - who at the time of its recording was reportedly in the depths of drug addiction – the decade’s antihero poster-boy, even landing him on Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential People” list in 1997.
Following up the strange success of 1989’s synth-poppy “Pretty Hate Machine,” “Spiral” was more sinister, mirroring Reznor’s own plummet. It could have been the site of its recording too: 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., the house where Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered by Charles Manson’s brood in 1969. Reznor dubbed the house “Le Pig” – not after the “PIG” scrawled on the door in Tate’s blood, he insisted at the time – moved in a studio’s worth of equipment, and set to work.
“Spiral” was released on March 8, 1994, knocking Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” out of the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200. Director Mark Romanek’s artfully deranged, sepia-toned video for second single “Closer” (eventually added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection) debuted two months later, forever changing the track from a declaration of Goth to frat boy lust. And making Reznor the scariest monster of all: A household name.
Twenty years later, the album is as brutal as it ever was; a portrait of a man ripping himself to pieces set to layers of sound that continue to peel back and reveal more after decades of listening. Reznor is somehow honest and preening in the same time, reveling in the nothingness like Rust Cohle monologuing on “True Detective.” But even if it is more drama than truth, “Spiral’s” final moments are still some of music’s most devastating.
"Mr. Self Destruct"
The album opens with the thwack-on-flesh sounds of a man being beaten by a heavy instrument, sequenced like a dystopian EDM build-up before dropping into a an industrial roar. It’s all backed by the looped noise of a pinion rotating; one of many that make the whole album sound like it was recorded in a haunted factory. Lyrically, Reznor sets himself up as an Antichrist – toxic but nonetheless powerful: “I control you,” he repeats. Perhaps this seduction was intentional after all.
Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker could cover this one in seedy lounge singer style (we’d really like to hear that, actually), but its heart is much darker. “Nothing can stop me now / Cause I don’t care anymore,” Reznor sings to a jilting lover (or perhaps a drug? Religion? Hard to say). One of the album’s quieter moments, it still seethes.
Reznor cuts to the chase on this one: “God is dead / And no one cares / If there is a Hell / I’ll see you there.” OK, got it. Next.
"March of the Pigs"
One of the most exciting three minutes in ‘90s music, “Pigs” belongs on a “Solid Gold Mosh Pit Anthems” compilation. Peaking at 269 BPM and weaving in and out of a maddening 29/8 time signature, it’s as ballistic as Reznor has ever been. And it gave planetarium laser show guys something else to use those evil Pink Floyd pigs on. (In ’94, Laserpalooza was a real thing.)
That iconic beat-hiss, those multiple melodic themes, and of course that line, years of rock innuendo made explicit: “I wanna f*ck you like an animal.” Despite or perhaps because of its crossover success, something tells us Reznor might regret this one. “Closer” is also the first appearance of the “Downward Spiral” motif; a threatening theme in a minor key that repeats several times throughout the rest of the album, and even in Reznor’s later work.
There’s a tweaked rock guitar breakdown in “Ruiner” that’s got to be Reznor taking the piss out of all the band guys who dissed synthesizers. The track is another indictment of some poisonous, self-aggrandized other, again leading our antihero to the same apathetic refrain from “Piggy”: “Nothing can stop me now.”
Kicking off a kind of two-track EP within “Spiral,” “The Becoming” digs deeper into the idea of going dead – or in this case, robot – when the disappointments of the world become too much. Over a constant backdrop of looped screams, Reznor celebrates his transformation into a non-human thing, which will purportedly liberate him from feeling. But as the breathy acoustic bridge, and one of the albums most tragic refrains indicate, it’s not going to be that easy: “It won’t give up / It wants me dead / Goddamn this noise inside my head.”
"I Do Not Want This"
If “Becoming” is about a desire to go numb, “I Do Not Want This” is Reznor’s Hamlet moment, resisting that potential end. Sounds phasing left to right to capture the indecision, and at the end we get a special peek into Reznor’s real potential issue: Crippling narcissism. “I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to f*ck everyone in the world / I want to do something that matters.”
"Big Man with a Gun"
Reznor decries the patriarchy, or maybe his own uncontrollable virility, or perhaps hormonally driven male aggression. This could be considered a companion piece to PJ Harvey’s “Man Size.”
"A Warm Place" and "Eraser"
These two tracks are the first tastes of Reznor’s flair for the instrumental and cinematic, which would be showcased grandly on fully voice-less 2008 collection “Ghosts” – and of course his Oscar-winning soundtrack to “The Social Network” in 2010.
“Reptile” gives female NIN fans the willies because its antagonist is a seductive Eve; a “precious whore” pulling Reznor into ruin with her “trail of honey.” But as with most of his metaphors, it could be a woman, a drug or God – or all three.
"The Downward Spiral"
This dominantly instrumental track contains a narration of a suicide by gun and lots of Reznor screaming, setting the stage for our finale.
The final wrist-slash after the long full-album plummet, “Hurt” captures regret so universally that even Johnny Cash covered it (memorably). The sonic onslaught of the album gives way to comparatively minimalist production, using Reznor’s reliable piano tinkles and guitar strums for dread as well as beauty. It all ends with a minute and a half of sonic fuzz on the same hopeless loop; the transmission ended, but the pain eternal.