Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

As far as timelessness goes, the fact that this album was recorded ten years ago (already?!) is staggering. Each listen still sounds like the first time.

Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and the EP Broken (1992) had been the vehicles through which Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor’s one man band) gained a formidable following, but it was the chaotic, artistic and wonderfully evil The Downward Spiral that propelled NIN into notoriety.

From the opening thumping noises on Mr Self Destruct until the final strains of Hurt, Downward Spiral is one hell of a noisy, overwhelming and undeniably disturbing journey that rages through the annals of predominantly synth-based rock. There is hardly an ounce of joy within the album. Reznor bleeds his innermost bitterness all over these songs like an open wound.

Reznor puts a voice to thoughts such as most people would fear to acknowledge, let alone record with such abandon. He screams, whispers and moans his way through 14 songs about hate, betrayal, anger and everything in between; never has there been a more fitting title for an album.

The line ‘Nothing can stop me now, ‘cause I don’t care anymore’ from Piggy sounds like a taunt and is all the more believable because it is softly spoken – definitely a case of less is more. Then there is the infamous ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’ from Closer, released as a single and heavily edited for radio-play.

March of the Pigs, released as the first single off the album, alternates rampaging, roaring guitars and synth with short piano solos and is a perfect example of the extremes that co-exist and confound throughout the album.

One of the best tracks on the album is Ruiner with its urgency and rage, conveyed through a chaotic amalgamation of synth and heavy beats, while Reznor positively snarls through the choruses.  

The Becoming is yet another foray into the dark and disturbing world of Reznor. Screams in the background, warped acoustic break – it is evil personified! The best part of the song is the outro, where Reznor screams, “It won’t give up, it wants me dead, goddamn this noise inside my head” amidst chugging guitar.

Song 10 is the instrumental A Warm Place, a stunning piece of music with ambient touch that is eerie, beautiful and sad all at once.

Eraser begins with minimalist music and with Reznor calmly intoning ‘Need you, dream you, find you…’ and so on for a few more lines, culminating in ‘break you’. The song then does a complete turn around and Reznor yells, “lose me, smash me, hate me, erase me” amidst brutal guitars. It is one of the most impacting songs on the album.

Hurt is familiar to many more people due to its being covered by Johnny Cash. The song is almost unbearable in its sadness and sincerity, and is sung by one who sounds as though he is at the end of his rope. In fact, the final notes of this song and this album are the sudden explosive whines of a guitar, which startles, but reinforces the tragic nature of this song.

There is scarce a ‘Best Album’ list which does not include The Downward Spiral. It delves into the deepest recesses of the human psyche and leaves you scarred and unsettled, yet it ventures into the territory where many others fear to go, which is its greatest triumph.