Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994): Review

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Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor
Label – Interscope

The greatest compliment one can apply to Trent Reznor’s epic, nihilistic journey through the depths of despair, is that for all the disturbing electronic and human screams, fed back guitar noise and jolting drum rhythms, “The Downward Spiral” remains a completely accessible long player. With a backdrop that captures the concept of a man descending into mental and physical destruction, the abiding memory of his 1994 grimly inspired collection is one that eerily has a bedrock of contorted imagery that exists in many of us to varying degrees. From the charged musical and emotional extremes of “Mr Self Destruct” to the pained anthem to hopeless and tortured self analysis (“Hurt”), the collection is an intense, often exhausting, yet essential experience.

Recorded in the house that was the gruesome murder scene of Sharon Tate by the gang belonging to deranged cult leader Charles Manson, Reznor insisted at the time that the references to pigs in two songs from “…Spiral” are merely coincidental, and are not directly influenced by the fact that the word “PIG” was scrawled on the door of the house in Tate’s blood. If the setting for Reznor’s recording process was shrouded by historical cruelty and barbarism, it was a veneer that gave host to Reznor’s troubled soul. The agony of a severe drug addiction and the depression that followed fuels every moment, with lead single “March Of The Pigs” combining the harshest assimilated cruelty of the animals being led to the slaughter with the oddest sweet piano refrain (“doesn’t it make you feel better, the pigs have won tonight”). Best remembered for its inspired Mark Romanek promo, “Closer” sees Reznor as the unhinged sadist, backed by the dirtiest synth bass line to add gravity to the singer’s wicked taunts.

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“Hurt”, the album’s closer, is an outstanding representation of how Reznor’s overwhelming gloom afflicts and directly affects his opinionated value as a human being. It would take on a completely different meaning when Johnny Cash recorded it just before his sad demise, and yet both versions are equally vital. The way Reznor ramps up the vocal as the song reaches its climax, highlights the sense of despair in the lyrics. It seemed obvious that eventually he would guide his compositions towards movie soundtracks, and the highly underrated “Ruiner” captures the tangible air of menace via superb musical composition and powerful arrangements. He remains a gifted technician in creating a tense backdrop and uses sonic crescendo to heighten the sense of impending dread.

Granted, “The Downward Spiral” is never a comfortable musical proposition. That said, the messages of isolation, dislocation and despondency infect the senses and stir emotions that rarely surface. Although labelled industrial music, this record has a human heart, albeit abused and wounded.

8/10

Track Rating
1 – Mr Self Destruct (9)
2 – Piggy (7)
3 – Heresy (7)
4 – March Of The Pigs (8)
5 – Closer (8)
6 – Ruiner (9)
7 – The Becoming (7)
8 – I Do Not Want This (6)
9 – Big Man With A Gun (7)
10 – A Warm Place (7)
11 – Eraser (7)
12 – Reptile (8)
13 – The Downward Spiral (8)
14 – Hurt (10)

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4 responses to “Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994): Review

  1. I’ve always been of two minds on this album. I loved Pretty Hate Machine so much that this album paled from the first. However, there were some great songs on the album, even Closer, though that one was ruined for me for a long time after hearing three times in one night (!) at a townie bar in my hometown. Great post!

    • “Closer” being played in a townie bar is just about the worst setting for the song. Now I completely understand your mixed feelings. This album only makes sense if you’re alone, at home, with lights low.

  2. Thanks Geoff, as I said it’s excellent but exhausting. Next up…Ian Dury’s “New Boots & Panties”. The random number generator I use for selecting the next album to review must have known I needed some light relief.

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