Album Analysis | Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral
25 years after its initial release, we revisit the history of one of the most menacing, controversial, and misunderstood albums ever, one that defined the '90s and cemented the career of Nine Inch Nails frontman, Trent Reznor.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania where “there was nothing going on but the cornfields”, Trent Reznor dreamt of leaving his rustic confinements to explore. A gifted pianist since childhood, who also played horns in the jazz and marching band, he eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue a career in music. It would be the same "small lad with a tuba” that would later be called “the dark lord of doom” by some publications.
While working as a janitor and assistant engineer at Right Track Studios in Cleveland, he was allowed to record his demos during his free studio time. Inspired by Prince, he performed every instrument himself in these early demos (a practice that he would stick with for most of his career). These demos then composed the debut album Pretty Hate Machine (1989); synth-driven, electronic, and immature, it was an unexpected hit, selling half a million units in the first two years and going triple-platinum in the U.S. over the next decade.
This success launched the career of what has always been essentially a one-man band, Nine Inch Nails. After forming a live band, Nine Inch Nails embarked on a world tour and found an opening slot to support Guns 'n’ Roses on the European leg of their 1991 tour. Following the unsatisfying European tour (Guns 'n’ Roses fans were hard to please) and a highly publicized legal dispute with his label TVT, which erroneously labelled him as a ‘synth-pop’ artist and wanted another ‘synth-pop’ album, Reznor managed to move to Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records, and achieve the creative freedom he wanted. Exhausted with his newfound fame, burnt out from touring, and with his longstanding feelings of social anxiety and depression, Reznor had all the right ingredients for the concepts that would form The Downward Spiral and solidify himself as the new master of industrial.
To produce his follow-up album, Trent Reznor rented a house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles in 1992. For the next 18 months, Reznor lived and recorded in the site of one of the most notorious events in American history: the Tate murders by the Manson Family. It was previously the house of director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. On August 9th 1969, Tate, who was eight months pregnant, three visiting friends, and an 18-year old student (who was visiting the property’s caretaker) were brutally murdered by three members of the Manson family.
The converted studio was nicknamed “Le Pig” after the message written in Tate’s blood on the front door by her murderers. Reznor later admitted that the name was in bad taste. In fact, during this period he was confronted by Tate’s sister Patti, on a random encounter, who accused Reznor of exploiting her sister's death. This meeting later brought Reznor to tears as he realized the severity of the events. Notwithstanding, the house was chosen for financial reasons, and, according to engineer Sean Beavan, it wasn’t until they received the renting contract that they knew it was the site of the Tate murders: “Until then, he [Reznor] had no idea it was the site of the Tate murders — he just thought it was a great place to install a studio — and so we were blown away when we learned the truth.”
“In making The Downward Spiral, he encouraged the computer to misconstrue input, willed it to spew out bloated, misshapen shards of sounds that pierced and lacerated the listener” -David Bowie
The Tate house (which can be seen in the music video for their 1992 song “Gave Up”) was fitted with a large mixing console, Macintosh computer, Pro Tools recording software, and a great deal of outboard effects gear, synthesizers, drum machines, and guitars. Along with Reznor, The Downward Spiral was co-produced by the legendary Flood, whose work includes U2's Achtung Baby and Depeche Mode’s Violator. Trent Reznor wrote, arranged, and performed almost every instrument except for drums. Instead of making a guitar-based or synth-based album Reznor focused on sounds, textures, and experimentation. Additional personnel on the album include the innovative and perplexing guitarist Adrian Belew, drummer Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction), and the band's touring drummer Chris Vrenna.
“With 'The Downward Spiral' I tried to make a record that had full range, rather than a real guitar-based record or a real synth-based record. I tried to make it something that opened the palate for NIN, so we don't get pigeon-holed. It was a conscious effort to focus more on texture and space, rather than bludgeoning you over the head for an hour with a guitar.” - Reznor
Innovative in his production, and with full command of the technology, Reznor relied heavily on sampling live performance, digital and analogue manipulations and experimentation; he reinterpreted the use of the synthesizer and sound technology in a time where guitars were taking the lead. According to him, ninety-nine percent of the music was recorded to the Macintosh computer first, manipulated, arranged and then converted back to analogue tape. Much of the guitars and live drums were recorded, manipulated, looped, and sampled. It should be noted that these were early days for digital recording. Pro Tools, which is now the industry standard digital audio workstation, was first introduced in 1991. In a Sound On Sound interview, one of the album's sound engineers Sean Beaven stated, “The processing in the computer was interesting, even though it was kind of rudimentary at that time — always on the cutting edge, we'd do things that no one else had done before.”
“Trent’s music, built as it is on the history of industrial and mechanical sound experiments, contains a beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure: Nietzsche's "God is dead" to a nightclubbing beat. And always lifted, at the most needy moment, by a tantalizing melody.”-David Bowie
The concept album is just over an hour-long, with fourteen genre-bending tracks composed of flashes of mania, alternating whispers and screams, unusual arrangements, a seemingly endless amount of distortion, noise, sonic surprise, and extremely sinister lyrics. Reznor cites David Bowie's Low (1977) as the major influence on the sonic qualities of The Downward Spiral. He also regards the themes of abuse, isolation, and madness in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) as a major conceptual influence. Regarding The Wall, he said, “I’d never heard music that had that naked, honest emotion.” He has also spoken recently about how David Lynch’s use of sound in his film inspired the sound design of The Downward Spiral. Interestingly, Reznor would later produce the soundtrack for Lynch’s neo-noir horror Lost Highway (1997).
"Thematically I wanted to explore the idea of somebody who systematically throws or uncovers every layer of what he's surrounded with, comfort-wise, from personal relationships to religion to questioning the whole situation. Someone dissecting his own ability to relate to other people or to have anything to believe in...” - Reznor
The dominant tones of The Downward Spiral are existentialism and nihilism. Numerous metaphors are present in the album, but Reznor isn’t one to explain his songs. However, the main concept is of a man that begins a ‘downward spiral’ of depression that deals with religion, violence, society, disease, drug abuse, self-harm, self-control, sex, and ultimately suicide. The character is a representation of Reznor himself, who has stated that during the tour for the album problems started to arise, “This record that was about an extension of me, became the truth fulfilling itself.”
The artwork, almost forbidding, painful, appropriately titled “Wound,” was designed by longtime NIN art collaborator, Russell Mills. It reflects the layers of the music, and alludes to the imagery of pain and healing, depicting “visceral rawness of open wounds.” According to Mills, it was made of “plaster, acrylics, oils, rusted metals, insects, moths, blood (mine), wax, varnishes, and surgical bandaging on a wooden panel.”
“An emotional rollercoaster that rumbles through the many shades of gloom and dolor, The Downward Spiral is a triumphant tumble down a dark staircase.” (CMJ)
The album begins with a restructured sample from the George Lucas film THX 1138: the sounds of a man being beaten. The sound of striking from the sample progressively speeds up until the sound spectrum is suddenly filled with an uproar of heavily distorted guitars and disorienting noise over which Reznor casually delivers these lines (in a call and response-type verse) which set the tone for the rest of the album:
“I am the voice inside your head And I control you
I am the lover in your bed And I control you I am the sex that you provide And I control you I am the hate you try to hide And I control you”
Reznor wanted the first track “Mr. Self Destruct” to be “the shittiest sounding thing that, by the end, just deteriorates into noise.” The next track “Piggy” is about ex-NIN live guitarist Richard Patrick, who left Reznor distressed after he left the band. It is a “...light, swinging jazz song – just the exact opposite of what you’d expect.” At a welcomed slower tempo of 66 bpm, it features one of Reznor’s few live drums performances, which was supposedly a mic test but was kept because he liked it too much. It ends with the first of many appearances of The Downward Spiral motif: a chromatic melody that appears more prominently in the title track and at the ending of “Closer”. The next track “Heresy", lyrically Nietzschean, is an aggressive attack on western religion with sexual themes, described as, “trying to explore some of the paranoia I have as a sexually active person in the age of AIDS.” by Reznor.
“March of the Pigs” is the lead single of the album; oddly enough it has one of the most unusual time signatures (29/8 time) of any popular song to achieve radio play and an extraordinarily fast tempo of 269 BPM. Like “Piggy”, it has nothing to do with the Tate murders; according to Reznor, the ‘Pigs' refer to, "anywhere from the media to people he thought were friends around him.” Its fast pace and two unusual piano breakdowns have made it a staple of their live shows. “Closer”, the second single, features a heavily altered version of the kick drum from the Iggy Pop song “Nightclubbing.” Lyrically misunderstood due to its famous chorus line “I want to fuck you like an animal”, the song is actually about obsession and self-hatred. Arguably the band's most well-known song, it was a commercial success whose controversial music video expanded its reach. Reznor, who described “Closer” as a song with a “simple disco beat and a Prince kind of harmony vocal line”, was originally afraid of including it on the album as it might have not appealed to the “safe company of alternative people” that enjoyed his debut album.
According to Reznor, "Ruiner" was "the hardest song to write" and "two different songs stuck together". It features a rare guitar solo by Reznor during the bridge, a “Pink Floyd-esque”, “Comfortably Numb-type solo” in which he accidentally used the wrong guitar sound patch resulted in this gratifying moment of peace during an otherwise hectic piece. “The Becoming” has themes of death and the Kafka-esque transformation into a non-human organism, and also draws from the emotional pain between Reznor and college sweetheart "Annie.” (who is mentioned in the lyrics). The song then fades into “I Do Not Want This”, which features heavy drums loops played by Stephen Perkins, and continues the descent into madness.
The next track “Big Man With A Gun” is almost forgettable, yet it was maybe the most controversial on the album. It was originally intended as a satire of “misogynistic gangsta rap bullshit”, and also to reflect the protagonist's descent into madness. It was however highly misinterpreted and taken out of context, especially by conservative politician William Bennett and civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker, who cited the lyrics to this song in their fight against explicit lyrics in rap and hip-hop. Retroactively, Reznor wished he hadn’t included the song on the album not because of its controversy, but its lack of quality.
“A Warm Place”, the only instrumental track on the album, marks a shift in tone in the album. It’s a deserved break from the thrashing violence and darkness of the previous tracks with a beautiful melody of synthesizers. It segues into “Eraser” with an odd symphony of hums and forceful blows through the mouthpiece of a sax. It features heavy beating drums and a build-up of synths and oddly tuned guitars until a breakdown at the end, in which Reznor delivers a few single lines, degenerating into absolute noise by the end and cross-fading into the next track.
“Reptile”, at 6:52, is the longest track on the album and was considered to be released as a single. It has a strong structure: three separate and repeating sections and two quieter breaks, one of which featuring a sample of a woman falling down a hill from Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), as if the song wasn’t dark enough. With heavy industrial machines sounding like a factory gone wrong in perfect sync, it exemplifies industrial rock. Its chorus is brighter in spirit than the rest of the song, making it a fan favourite.
The title track is the end of the protagonist's downward spiral. It features drones under a guitar playing The Downward Spiral's motif which slowly builds to the end section, which features some of the best production on the album. The listener is surrounded in a beautiful mix by Reznor’s muffled screams repeating behind the scenes along with live drums and guitars in the distance, over which he quietly delivers the last few lines. It culminates with the protagonist's suicide by gunshot: “He couldn't believe how easy it was (he put the gun into his face) - Bang!”
“Hurt”, one of the best-known and most-covered NIN songs (rendered immortal by Johnny Cash) ends the album as a pseudo-ballad of depression, self-harm, and addiction. It’s almost separate from the rest of the album in its intimacy, with its notably beautiful, yet unusual, verse of dissonance and a chorus that sounds lyrically defeated, but clinging onto whatever hope is left. The Downward Spiral comes to a close with the line “I would find a way”, which Reznor solemnly sings with glimpses of desire and remorse over incredibly distorted and cacophonous guitar chords. The last one minute and thirty-eight seconds of sustain over a comfortless, ambient drone leave you with enough time to begin to contemplate what life is all about, let alone this album.
The journey through The Downward Spiral is a harsh but cathartic one. It’s a work of art in the pure unfiltered reproduction of emotion and a reflection of the human condition. It’s also a towering achievement of sound technology and music production, influencing several heavy rock bands, who tried to imitate its sound. A genius in his craft, Reznor found meaning in his suffering and shared his soul with the world. He sold a few million copies in the meantime and brought industrial to the mainstream. Bowie was right when he said “there has never been better soul-lashing in rock."