The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails’ industrial operatic epic, was released into the public twenty-four years ago last month. Recorded in the same house where members of the Manson Family brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate, the album itself was conceived by Trent Reznor’s love of David Bowie’s “Low” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
A Dark Journey of the Soul: The Downward Spiral
Reznor delved into a variety of aural textures for the record. It was an instant commercial success upon release. However, it’s production and revival of the “concept album” is its real legacy. Bands like Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, and even Motley Crue attempted to mimic the sonic landscape Reznor conceived on the record. Much like his mentor Bowie and Eno did on the Berlin records, Reznor birthed an entire aural world in a studio set up in a murder house. He attacked topics you shouldn’t talk about at the dinner table, peeling back the skin (as Reznor stated lyrically) to reveal the darker soul of the record’s main character.
Of course, now we know that Reznor was talking about himself. For Reznor, TDS became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reznor’s mental health issues are well documented – depression and anxiety mixed with various alcohol and cocaine binges. Reznor attacked us with images of cyberpunk, sadomasochistic and animalistic sex, and violent atheism. He painted a picture of his world – a godless topographical map of depression, bleak and alienating. And despite it, his main character expresses some regret for showing us, saying “I do not want this” in the middle of the record.
Twenty-four years later, the themes in The Downward Spiral ring even more authenticly. Think about it. We are more attached to our technology through smartphones and social media. We are more connected than ever, yet we are even more alienated. We have failed to learn the lessons that this magnum opus. Instead, the more our world is connected, the more alone we feel.
The Downward Spiral stands alone for its character’s descent into deep depression and self-destruction. We follow the character on his journey through a quilt of mental processes devoid of joy. His internal dialogue is violent, ranging from rape to violence, with a stop at addiction, and finally concluding with the track Hurt, an intense, muted track that completes our subjects journey into the seemingly bottomless void of darkness. It’s unclear if the character finds redemption, and that is the point of the story Reznor tells. The character has a choice, just as we do.
Hurt is an especially fascinating track. Reznor himself changed some of the lyrics after he came out of the other end of his recovery process in 2001. These lyrical changes hammer the point of the song home even more strongly. The issue is choice.
While Reznor has moved on from his own downward spiral, this record stands as arguably his best work to date. The Downward Spiral contains some of his most potent work and some of his most controversial. Many acts have attempted to recreate the style but have fallen short. They say plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. If that’s indeed the case, The Downward Spiral solidified Nine Inch Nails as one of the most influential acts to come out of the 1990s.
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