Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral': 20 years of filth and fury

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Image Credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns

Though I had dipped in and out of MTV throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, tuning in for the manic kitsch of Remote Controlthe clever smarm of The Half-Hour Comedy Hour, and the occasional Skid Row video, I didn’t really go all in on the network—and thus music videos—until 1994. I had become deeply invested in the narrative running through the third season of The Real World, which was the great San Francisco-based slobberknocker between Pedro and Puck. That show became the only thing people talked about during middle school study halls, so I immersed myself in one of the earliest revolutionary reality shows, and often stuck around for the videos.

I have vivid memories of sitting in the dark in my living room after my parents had gone to bed, watching clip after clip on the network (this was still the era when a Saturday night meant several consecutive hours of music videos shown under various umbrellas). A handful of those videos from that year stuck with me, simply because they were in such heavy rotation: Nirvana’s Unplugged performance of “All Apologies,” Smashing Pumpkins’ sci-fi clip for “Rocket,”  Soudgarden’s terrifying “Black Hole Sun,” and the Beastie Boys’ kinetic ’70s cop show homage “Sabotage.” (There was also the always-playing clip for Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place,” which I found boring at the time but now I find cripplingly sexy.)

But only one video really mattered to me, and that was Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.”

Directed by budding auteur Mark Romanek, “Closer” was a terrifying dive into Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor’s fractured psyche. There was nudity, there were oddities, there were those creepy “Scene Missing” edits that added to its allure, and there was lots of grime. The first time I saw “Closer,” I was alone in my house with all the lights off, and even as I was unnerved to my core, there was something appealing about the video. I had already heard “Closer” on the radio in its edited form, though I was aware of its explicit chorus. I liked it, but it took several viewings of the “Closer” video to send me on my bike to my local Coconuts to pick up a copy of The Downward Spiral, and that is where a 20-year odyssey began. 

Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral turns 20 on Saturday, and two decades after the fact, it still stands as an unrivaled achievement. For the album’s entry in EW’s “All Time Greatest” list (it came in at #64), I wrote, “He may have won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for The Social Network, but Trent Reznor’s greatest score remains this pounding soundtrack to the drug-fueled psychosexual persecution drama that played out in his head.” Reznor has gone through quite a transformation, moving from agent of chaos to tortured substance abuser to groundbreaking digital innovator to award-winning film composer. Though he had to take that long, circuitous route to get to where he is, the roots of The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo began with The Downward Spiral. 

The narrative, such as it is, loosely tracks a nameless protagonist’s descent into madness. Along the way, Reznor toys with nihilism (“Mr. Self-Destruct”), sex (“Closer,” “Big Man With a Gun”), faith (“Heresy”), fascism (“March of the Pigs”), and the possibilities and dangers of change (“Reptile”). Reznor paints with broad strokes, but he’s fully committed to every idea, and he marries each one with a sprawling sonic vision. The Downward Spiral was the first album of Reznor’s that made the “industrial rock” tag obsolete, as while there was a healthy melding of metal guitars and machine beats (especially on “March of the Pigs”), the album also plumbs the depths of synth rock, electronic R&B, Suicide-esque drone, and even the spaghetti Western folk of “Hurt.” 

It’s not an easily categorized album, which has helped it maintain its allure. I still give it a spin at least once a week, and it’s astounding how much is packed into its 65 minutes. Listening 20 years on, the savagery on “Heresy” still feels as bracing as it always has, and the refrain that invades the tail end of “The Becoming” (“It won’t give up, it wants me dead/ Goddamn this noise inside my head”) remains haunting and visceral. I’m still discovering noises buried deep within “A Warm Place” and “Eraser.” The guitar riff that crashes through “Reptile” seems to get sludgier every time I listen. And of course, “Closer” remains a definitive work, not just because of its matter-of-fact chorus, but also because of the way the synths escalate at the end until suddenly nothing but a distant piano pound finishes it off.

It’s exactly the type of album that appealed to a developing 13-year-old rock elitist. The Downward Spiral is remarkable for its warts-and-all approach—it’s pretty clear that for all his sonic perfectionism, he did not edit himself when it came to his personal expression. It’s a singular work, and Reznor doesn’t mind sometimes being the villain of the piece (look no further than “Big Man With a Gun,” which is purposefully incendiary; Reznor claimed it was a comment on rap lyrics, but any level of satire didn’t stop it from getting read on the floor of the House of Representatives as part of one of Senator Joe Lieberman’s cultural witch hunts). It was the ultimate, purist form of self-expression I could find, and I couldn’t get enough. 

I have no doubt that for all the lip service I pay to my rock heroes, The Downward Spiral is the single most important album of my lifetime. It forced me to think of pop music multi-dimensionally—not just as songs on the radio but as a greater whole that included album art (I remember the CD booklet for The Downward Spiral had a particular smell to it; I know realize it probably just has to do with the paper stock, but it felt like an embedded message at the time), music videos, remixes, and Reznor’s phenomenally turbulent live performances. The greatness and depth of The Downward Spiral made me re-evaluate all the other music I loved, and I became a better critical thinker with all art thanks to Reznor’s masterpiece. Since its release, I have demanded more of musicians, all of whom should be forced to live up to Nine Inch Nails’ remarkable third album.

The Downward Spiral is a dark, chaotic, churning, gorgeous, violent piece of business, and like Reznor himself, it is aging remarkably well. 

What are your memories of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral? Let us know in the comments.

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