25 Years of The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails | Feature
Feature and photos by Jimmy Hutchinson
It starts with a brutal blow; then another, and another. 23 seconds in, everything explodes: ‘I am the voice inside your head (and I control you)’. Welcome to the world of The Downward Spiral.
Brian Eno described the experience of listening to Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot as ‘like having your head encased in concrete’. ‘Mr. Self Destruct’ borrows that approach and then builds a factory over the top. But it’s not all sonic chaos – there is a brief but dramatic shift in dynamics halfway through the song, and after four and a half minutes it collapses to pave the way for the comparatively melodic ‘Piggy’.
It’s the constantly changing moods and dynamics of this album that keep it entertaining – and still surprising – after 25 years. As aggressive as some pieces can be (‘Big Man with a Gun’), The Downward Spiral has plenty of quiet (‘A Warm Place’), fragile (‘Hurt’) and downright weird (‘March of the Pigs’) moments that make it a compelling experience.
Inspired by the emerging industrial scene, Trent Reznor founded Nine Inch Nails in Ohio in 1988, and later assembled a live band to tour debut album Pretty Hate Machine. Subsequent E.P. Broken marked a significant change in direction, intended to reflect the band’s live aggression (and also Reznor’s frustration with original label TVT). The band’s second full-length release is a concept album about ‘someone who sheds everything around them to a potential nothingness’, gradually abandoning their ‘career, religion, relationship, belief and so on’.
Musically, The Downward Spiral continues Broken’s use of layers of distorted guitars and synthesizers, but also features more traditional instruments such as acoustic guitar and piano, and heavy use of sampling and computer editing. As such, its principal ‘instrument’ is the recording studio, and there are plenty of unusual compositional touches.
As dense as the instrumentation and as manic as the time signatures on ‘March of the Pigs’, it abruptly dissolves into a gentle piano coda – twice. The programmed synths and beats of ‘Ruiner’ give way to wind sound effects and a raucous guitar solo from guest Adrian Belew. And infamous hit single ‘Closer’ is such a masterpiece of multitrack mixing that it’s almost easy to forget its ‘controversial’ chorus and promotional video.
Reznor’s wide palette of sounds is complemented by his varied approach to vocals: sometimes a hysterical scream, sometimes a barely audible whisper. The album is also incredibly well structured: each track segues into the next – at times jarringly, and at others with immense subtlety. It’s impossible to imagine the melancholic final notes of ‘A Warm Place’ (which borrows liberally from Bowie’s ‘Crystal Japan’) without the gradual intrusion of the hissing reeds that introduce ‘Eraser’.
Apple Music is currently describing the album as a ‘bold, no-look dive into the abyss’ – but for all its abrasive textures, The Downward Spiral is not short on melodies or hooks. ‘Piggy’ is driven by a walking bass that anchors the song, despite the occasional bursts of noise and an enjoyably chaotic drum solo (played by Reznor himself). ‘Hurt’ has gained fame outside of the album, but the cover versions usually remove its dissonant tritone – the most unique element of the song. The 14 album tracks were fertile enough ground for multiple remix releases, including the March of the Pigs and Closer to God singles, and two international variants of the Further Down the Spiral album.
The Downward Spiral was a colossal success, in an era when the mainstream was ‘salivating over melodramatic angst’. It sold nearly 119,000 copies in its first week, and ultimately over four million copies worldwide. The band stole the show at Woodstock ’94, covered head to foot in mud, and even won themselves a mention in the ‘Homperpalooza’ episode of The Simpsons. With success came pressure to tour and record a follow-up. It took Trent Reznor five years to release The Fragile – but that’s another story.
The ‘Definitive Edition’ of The Downward Spiral was released on 180-gram vinyl in 2016 (pictured). It includes an essay by John Doran. You can still order a copy on nin.com.