Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral' at 20: Classic Track-By-Track


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.

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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.

- Album Review