'The Downward Spiral' Turns 25; Is Darker Than Ever

Context Makes This Beast Even More Daunting A Listen

March 8, 2019

by Joey Odorisio


Massive congrats go out to Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails - today, March 8, 2019, The Downward Spiral turns 25! Whoever thought a song with the chorus "I Want to F*** You Like An Animal" would still get bumped on radio stations across the USA? It's all about the context of bands blowing up at that time from "grunge" to White Zombie, times were so much darker when this album dropped.

Look, I'm no music critic - I either like it, tolerate it, or dislike it, this post has more to do with being old enough to have been influenced by an album now 25 years old. With that realization, I'll be gently weeping into my Pfriem IPA tonight should you need me...

In 1994, high school me was learning the guitar parts of Nirvana, Green Day, and some corny Guns N Roses song. While we were certainly aware of NIN because of "Head Like a Hole", "Terrible Lie", or "Down In It", I'm not sure anyone was prepared for the blanket fort of somber feelings to come crashing down to the next level of hell that was The Downward Spiral.

Frankly, I hated the album. It didn't feel clever. It just oozed mopiness for "gothy moody people with dumb black clothes". We certainly "didn't need any more keyboards" young stupid me lamented. I had grown up thinking the Mods were lame and this was just some pouty version of that sound. BUT I was just a kid. Responsibility meant mowing the lawn before playing guitar in the garage all day. There's a certain weight that settles in when one bears the full burden of decision making; the world isn't just what gets through the adult atmospheric filter hovering over the adolescent planet. 

The Downward Spiral in retrospect is an album that portal'd into the future to utilize what the industry would be doing twenty years later - so much synth, backing tracks (his building cemetery ambiance), midi triggered beats (hammered along to by drummer Chris Vrenna). Reznor is just short of auto-tune and T-Pain taking the stage - probably draped in black rags and covered in mud though. He wasn't the first, but he became a pillar showing others how to utilize these methods to make insane live performance possible.

It was a different time when we were much angrier as a music community. Rage Against the Machine wasn't gonna do what we told them. Tool was yelling about sex in prison, but Nine Inch Nails had both feet in a grave full of some black murky liquid shouting just loud enough for the words to escape its gravity and send me home full of creeps. The Crow would come out a couple of months later and we'd have a major motion picture playing on some of these same themes. What a weird dark time.

Now, in contrast, we're full of poppy synthesizers or rich dudes pushing play on a laptop while controlling a tone knob or two from a pyramid wearing a masking rodent head to the people dancing around on drugs.

Listening 25 years later to The Downward Spiral is even more significant. It's hard to decide if Reznor was summoning the above-ground graves of New Orleans and surrounding voodoo or perhaps communicating with a distant space pirate gang in cold depressing ships hurtling through the emptiness of our solar system. Either or both would fit the sound.

Hearing an unedited "Closer" is jarring. "Piggy" taunting. "March of the Pigs" daring someone to smash something to dust if they were aboard a spaceship and without memorable human contact in months - a touch of insanity coming from delicate "doesn't it make you feel better" + piano. "Becoming" fighting the control of onsetting darkness and demons. "A Warm Place" Giving in and accepting the haunting cold darkness overtaking the blood. "Hurt"'s finality - a daunting fight leaves the ego damaged and broken - not a Hollywood ending, but a slipping away from the outstretched hand and drifting to the darkness of space without hope. 

And the guitar tone - how the crap did he makes the mess of solid-state digital distortion - a disgusting idea - sound so sweet?