October 11, 2020

Masterpiece Crate #4: Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral Analysis and Review

Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral Masterpiece Album Review

Alternative and grunge rock were left for dead in the wake of Alice In Chains' punishing grunge-metal-hybrid album, Dirt, which we covered in our Masterpiece Crate #2. It was an album that ignited mainstream culture in a way that no other heavy metal act could do at the time, and there was almost no way another album could top the sheer aggressive tones and tonal density caught on tape and pressed into their sophomore record. However, another challenger approached, just two years later, and this time, it brought another genre with it into the worldwide spotlight. To call this album mainstream (despite its worldwide commercial success) would be a disservice to its ultimate goal, which was to peel back the skin of superficiality, but its overall effect on mainstream culture still reverberates to this day. This album shook the world with its naked honesty in its final track, while still showing the world how sexy, dirty, and seductive it feels getting closer to God. That album became known as The Downward Spiral, released in 1994 by studio mastermind, visionary, and musician, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.

Table of Contents


If you've noticed a trend in this Masterpiece Crate series of articles, it's that up until this point, each group created their masterpiece record in their second albums: Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and now Nine Inch Nails used their first albums as testing grounds to find their sound and ended up crafting extraordinary works of art in the second go-around. Trent Reznor, a classically trained pianist who grew up in the rural Mercer, Pennsylvania, didn't have a particularly rough childhood. Growing up with his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced, he states that nothing was particularly affecting that might have influenced his musical output, other than the isolation and loneliness of small-town, USA. A big influence up to this point was all of Reznor's mainstream media: television and magazines that portrayed an American lifestyle of superficial vanity, all of which was alien to him at the time.

After a year of college, Reznor dropped out and moved to Cleveland, Ohio to become an assistant engineer and custodian at the Right Track recording studio. In his free time, he was allowed to record raw demos of music that he envisioned. From these demos spawned his classic, debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, but his refinement wasn't complete until The Downward Spiral, which was recorded in the infamous (and likely haunted) Manson murder house in California. Whether this ominous essence was somehow burned to tape is up for speculation, but it is undeniable that the overall themes throughout this concept album, which chronicle nihilism and self-destruction, is a chilling tale of loneliness and despair, and unlike the previous entries of this series, has so much insight to be gained by being the first concept album to be covered. Its series of tracks can be related to by all those who have felt down and out about society, and for that, it takes its place as a masterpiece of modern culture. Now finally, on to the music. 

The Downward Spiral Package Artwork

Mr. Self Destruct

The opening track of the album, Mr. Self Destruct, opens up the album with the unmistakable and chilling sounds of a slow, beating drum, which sounds more like a pulverizing blow as a person in the mix moans in pleasure (or torture). As Pinhead of Hellraiser would say, "Ah, the suffering. The sweet, sweet suffering," and there is a definite motif in this album of sadomasochism that occurs from the act of self-harm or inflicting pain on others. Reznor comes in at the height of the drumbeat and speaks as the vices and temptations for the central character of the album, who for all intents and purposes will be referred to as the protagonist from henceforth. "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)." It's a cryptically poetic set of lyrics that set the stage for the many themes of the album, and it cuts to the core of what pushes this tortured soul down the path to self-destruction. 

Piggy and March Of The Pigs

Piggy and March of the Pigs, two songs that reference an animal used for many themes, such as gluttony, unclean desires, greed, and probably even a reference to the verbiage used by the Manson family, are defined by their introductions to the other agents of the album that the protagonist sees as lesser beings and disgusting in their desires or motives. The protagonist's attempt to address the pigs is a theme that has recently been explored in mainstream culture with Joaquin Phoenix's mesmerizing turn as the DC Comic Books villain Joker, which is itself inspired by the 1976 Scorsese picture Taxi Driver. Both films dealt with a central character whose disgust for society and overall view of the city streets as a cesspool of disease, addiction, and prostitution, sought to remedy the ills by their own means, which led to violence and a self-righteous effort to justify their actions. Piggy is the protagonist's attempt to address those who have left him to rot, "Black and blue and broken bones you left me here I'm all alone" and "what am I supposed to do I lost my shit because of you." The semi-downtempo and jazzy number serves as an introduction to how the protagonist feels about being betrayed by other people in his life. It is the very first song in the NIN legacy that features the repeated line throughout multiple releases "Nothing can stop me now, because I don't care anymore." An interesting producer note about Piggy is its latter half drum solo, which was performed by Reznor himself and was meant as more of a studio soundcheck, except Reznor, liking its disjointed and chaotic style so much, decided to keep it for the song's final take. March of the Pigs is the protagonist's view of society, and how the pigs like to tear down the people of higher standing and watch their downfall "I want to break it up, I want to smash it up, I want to fuck it up, I want to watch it come down, maybe afraid of it, let's discredit it, let's pick away at it, I want to watch it come down." 


Heresy tackles another popular theme of The Downward Spiral, the problem with religion and belief systems that the protagonist feels has plagued the world. It is important to note how directly this song is a product of Nietzsche's popular rendition of the phrase "God is dead", originally written by German philosopher Philipp Mainländer. Nietzsche's reinterpretation claims that the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of scientific discovery gave way to the decline of religion or faith-based ideas and that the role of God and His significance was diminished as more people turned their trust to science and naturalism. Not only this theory, but the protagonist's view of religion as one of the leading causes of war and genocide are felt throughout the lyrics, "He tries to tell me what I put inside of me, He's got the answers to ease my curiosity, He dreamed a god up and called it Christianity," and "He flexed his muscles to keep his flock of sheep in line, He made a virus that would kill off all the swine, His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering, and pain, demands devotion atrocities done in his name," is answered by the scathing declaration "Your God is dead, and no one cares, if there is a Hell, I will see you there."


Closer Heartbeat Music Video Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral

Closer, the worldwide phenomenon, is a sexy, albeit desperate attempt, by the protagonist to reconnect with humanity and spirituality through the act of sexual intercourse. As if any non-Nine Inch Nails fan didn't already know this obvious fact, that Closer was about "I wanna fuck you like an animal" and getting "closer to God", Closer was an industrial-disco hybrid track that ended up being a repeat hit on the rock radio airwaves and signaled that the 80s arena rock and 90s grunge rock were now relics of a more distant time, and the electronic-industrial-rock fusion that Nine Inch Nails offered was the new wave of even more dangerously satisfying music that was here to stay in pop culture. Nothing of the time could come close to Closer's pervasiveness and perversion of getting closer. Its opening industrial heartbeat, timid singing by Reznor, and scowling primal chorus define its sweaty dance vibes. It is the desperate plea by the protagonist to satisfy his most basic instincts, and hopefully, in the process, find something, or someone, to reconnect to, but ultimately this act isn't enough to save his soul, and he is pulled by his past memories into much, much darker territory, with the close follow-up song, Ruiner. 


Ruiner and The Becoming are both transitionary tracks for the protagonist in this story, and they both are dealing with entirely separate issues that some people who've dealt with trauma and addiction can relate to. Listen closely, as Ruiner is one of the most bone-chilling songs on the record, which is tough by The Downward Spiral's standards. "The Ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe, the Ruiner's your only friend well he's the living end to the cattle he deceives, the raping of the innocent you know the Ruiner ruins everything he sees, now the only pure thing left in my fucking world is wearing your disease." Childhood trauma with a molester and abuser makes the almost unintelligible lines all the more shocking and haunting. "Maybe there will come a day when those that you keep blind will suddenly realize, maybe it's a part of me you took to a place I hoped it would never go, and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know." The protagonist can't get right with God or right with others if his life is plagued by the Ruiner, and Reznor's production work to make this song a vibrating well of sounds doesn't pull any punches either. After his lines "What you gave to me, my perfect ring of scars, you know I can see, what you really are," the drums break away momentarily, and the fuzzy atmosphere is greeted by a bit-crushed guitar solo performed by Reznor himself. Similar to the drum solo in Piggy, Reznor displays a special aptitude for each of these instruments, and both exude a dusty and jazz-like swing in their performances. They speak to the unique attributes and moments that really make The Downward Spiral shine. It isn't long before the industrial drums march to the tune while the protagonist repeats, "You didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me, you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now."


The Becoming

The Becoming, the immediate follow-up, is the climactic metamorphosis track of the album and chronicles how the protagonist loses all humanity and allows the cold nihilism to take over his being. The character Annie, who the protagonist refers to, is a legitimate source of emotional pain for Reznor, a past heartbreak that allowed him to channel all the teeth-grinding hurt and rage that encapsulates The Becoming, "Annie, hold a little tighter I might just slip away." The beat that stampedes through this track afterward is full of organic and electronic noises, unlike any other song that's come before it, and it screeches and hollers as the protagonist loses all gound with what it means to be human. 

Trent Reznor 90s Era The Downward Spiral Performing Live

I Do Not Want This

I Do Not Want This, the protagonist's quiet resolve to his fate is highlighted by the industrial drum loops and his vulnerability. "I'm losing ground, you know how this world can beat you down, I'm made of clay, I fear I'm the only one who thinks this way." The timid singing and subsequent whispers start to become buried in the suffocating mix, which almost gives the sensation of drowning in the noise. Eventually, the protagonist erupts in anger and rage, "Don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, don't you tell me how I feel, you don't know just how I feel!" The buildup and contrast of the protagonist's self-doubt, heavy machine drum loops, and eventual screaming that he wants to "know everything", "be everywhere", "fuck everyone" and "do something that matters" crashes right into Big Man With A Gun,  and it peels off the skin of regret to become the ultimate example of madness and violent male toxicity.

Big Man With A Gun

There's not much more that needs to be said for this aural assault on sensibility, other than it hits the hardest of all the preceding tracks. It is the epitome of the protagonist's rage, all wrapped into a song that marries the abuse of power and hatred of women into one. It's sudden, unapologetic, and brutal, but it is also Reznor's response to the misogyny in mainstream hip-hop and popular culture.

A Warm Place

As sudden as Big Man With A Gun blasts through the speakers is the sudden quietude of the instrumental self-reflective track A Warm Place. The only peaceful and tranquil song of the album, the damage has been done, and the protagonist hasn't had much room to breathe or understand the consequences of his actions. The few fleeting moments of clarity soon gives way to the slowly growing and buzzing reverberation of the industrial monolith, Eraser. 


Eraser is another big moment in The Downward Spiral's mythos, and it's distinct in its slow-burn, industrial place-setting. The protagonist of this story has to come to terms with the person that he damaged and abused, coming full circle with the cycle of abuse that cast him down this path of destruction. The protagonist says all he needs to say in the final moments of the song, "Need you, dream you, find you, taste you, fuck you, use you, scar you, break you, lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me." The protagonist now turns the hate unto himself, all set to heavy metal guitar riffs and growing distortion and abrasions in the mix.


Reptile, a NIN concert favorite, defines the relationship of the protagonist with a past lover as one riddled with betrayal, infidelity, abuse, and impurity. The protagonist attempts to justify his actions through a scathing characterization of his lover. "Oh my beautiful liar, oh my precious whore, my disease my infection, I am so impure." There is a thread of truth as the protagonist acknowledges himself, and whether or not their relationship was as plagued as he claims is up to interpretation, but ultimately, it's this slow decline in self-referential hatred that leads the protagonist to his final act in The Downward Spiral, and his haunting epilogue, Hurt.  

Trent Reznor Barbed Wire The Downward Spiral Era Press Photo

The Downward Spiral

The Downward Spiral is the protagonist's final thoughts, as he "couldn't believe how easy it was, he put the gun into his face, Bang! (So much blood for such a tiny little hole)." The narrator's perspective is half-omniscient, half from the protagonist himself, as he describes the act in a chilling, casual conversation-like tone. It refers back to the protagonist, most likely the afterthought of his soul leaving his body, "Everything's blue in this world, the deepest shade of mushroom blue, all fuzzy, spilling out of my head." A final echo of the pain and suffering that the protagonist has gone through resonates for the remainder of the track, before dissolving into Reznor's arguably most famous song. 


Hurt couldn't be any more painful than it already is, but Johnny Cash reinvented and took ownership of Reznor's song in a way that puts it in an entirely new perspective. Still, Cash's Hurt couldn't exist without Reznor's own masterful ode to despair and regret. It opens with a shockingly bare-bones approach, and the protagonist gives listeners a final word on the feelings of a person that has ended up so damaged by the end, and whether or not any of it was worth it. "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real, the needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting, try to kill it all away, but I remember everything." The protagonist continues as he reminisces on what he has done and addresses a person he loves. The self-pity and depression in his reflections can relate to any person who experiences regret, and that's what makes this song so powerful and a concert mainstay whenever Nine Inch Nails performs live. The final chorus is an admission of defeat while promising if he ever got another chance to do it again, he would not go down The Downward Spiral of self-destruction. "You could have it all, my empire of dirt, I will let you down, I will make you hurt, if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way."


Nine Inch Nails was propelled into worldwide stardom with The Downward Spiral. Its unapologetic and tragic story burned itself into the ears of fans as a cautionary tale, and its two radio sensations, Closer and Hurt, couldn't be more apart from mainstream music clichés. As the world was about to reel from the infamous and suspicious death of grunge rock heartthrob Kurt Cobain, Reznor introduced the world to an even dirtier and darker (than Alice In Chains' Dirt) form of rock, and brought industrial to the main stage of popular culture. The studio work was so unlike any other album at the time that it still feels modern over a quarter-century later and continues to be discovered by new generations. Reznor's legacy will ultimately be defined by both this album, and our upcoming entry in our Masterpiece series, his follow-up masterwork, 1999's double album The Fragile. 

Trent Reznor Nine Inch Nails

Recommended Tracks: Piggy, The Becoming, Reptile