Friday, October 5, 2007
 The Downward Spiral
Album: The Downward Spiral
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Release Date: March 1994
Producer: Trent Reznor & Flood
“I beat my machine, it’s part of me, it’s inside of me…
…But the blood has stopped pumping and he’s left to decay,
The Me that you know is now made up of wires…
…Goddamn this noise inside my head.”
- from “The Becoming”
Trent Reznor was the greatest musical cyborg of the 1990’s. His music is the aural equivalent of The Terminator. While touring, he has even been known to check into hotels under the name 'Steve Austin', of The Six Million Dollar Man. Rock & Roll has had a long history of tug of war with technology and the noises it makes; when Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was released it was deemed unlistenable, and yet 20 years later, on The Downward Spiral, Reznor was sculpting that inorganic noise into an organic symphony, revealing what man and machine have in common – shelf life. We all die eventually. Decay is the key word – just look at the art on the packaging; it’s cracked and breaking down on a molecular level, like Trent found Reed's Metal and it's been rusting and forgotten since '75. Reznor can be intentionally not subtle; his next three albums: Further Down The Spiral, The Fragile, and Things Falling Apart.
Reznor's lyrics have always been slightly opaque despite their bluntness, but it's widely accepted that The Downward Spiral is about a man's psyche falling apart. Of course, Reznor is adored by a rabid fanbase for his depictions of depression and addiction, so with fragmented narratives in the songs, the listener can take from it what they want. For instance, the pivotal lyric on "Piggy", "Nothing can stop me now, I just don't care anymore", is universally grim, both confident and defeatist, and it's these kind of sentiments that have made Reznor so beloved. Likewise, on "Heresy", he yells, "Your God is dead, and no one cares", but only two songs later, his head is spinning, giving away his "absence of faith" and wanting to be "closer to God", even if it's through fornication. That is just one of the ways he's similar to Prince in the 80's, seemingly very devout in his Christian faith, but pushing the boundaries of public conception of that faith through embracing sin and challenging authority of all kinds. Even when he returned for 1999's The Fragile, and a lot of his lyrical magic had been lost, he could still spin an occasional nugget of angst. The concept for this concept album though is more of a theme than a story. It's not nearly as structured as, say, Pink Floyd's The Wall, which is a big influence of Reznor's. The theme supposedly relates to the escape and abandonment of organized religion and society through sex, violence, and drug abuse, which of course goes horribly wrong and leads to a mental breakdown. I think the message is pretty vague in places, but the intent is there, and he really sells it, with the choir of disembodied Trents mimicking the dozen-or-so voices in the main character's head.
The state of psychosis is mirrored by the widescreen frenzy of the music, as layered an album as you're ever likely to hear. More than once, I've seen audiophile articles insisting that if you're in the market for a high-end stereo system, then you need to test it with The Downward Spiral, and as I listen to "Ruiner" right now, I can say the same goes for a good set of headphones. For me, the sonic tapestry is the eternal selling point of The Downward Spiral. As I get older, the lyrics don't mean as much as when I was an angry teenager. The depth and perfection of the production is the unprecedented attraction, both in it's technical mastery and what it means to the success of the music; even just, as I said, on "Ruiner", beyond the ever-present chewed-up tape whine, and the boom-bap beat, and the Ziggy Stardust guitar solo, there are three distinct lead vocal tracks, all different in their tone, all corralled into their own corner of the mix. "The Becoming" throws together screaming victims, jackhammer programming, backwards moans, clipped percussion, and acoustic guitar against a wall of noise that recalls early dial-up Internet connections, then puts it all in the blender, hits puree, and out comes one of Reznor's best songs and the album's centerpiece. Of course, we all know he does most of this on his own, which is another way Reznor parallels Prince; I've always wanted them to swap some songs, the Purple One tackling "Closer" would be great, the gyrating rhythms and whistling loops ticking and cycling around like the illegitimate bastard child of "When Doves Cry" and "Darling Nikki". What does it say that Mark Romanek's iconic music video for the song, easily among the very best ever made, starts with a heart hooked up to a bunch of wires? If ever there was a visual that represents the music here, at least beyond the album art, it's that one.
Trent pits man and machine against each other right off the bat; where the cacophony of "Mr. Self Destruct" is roundly electronic past the "texture generating guitar" of King Crimson's Adrian Belew, the funky "Piggy" is skeletal and organic, based solely on natural percussion sounds, organ, and a classically simple bassline. Maybe it's telling that Reznor feels the machines are gaining the upper hand, as the white noise starts to creep in around the margins by the time of the stampede of drums that close out the latter. Across the board, he marries the unravelling of the mind in the lyrics to the production that pulls the music apart; "I Do Not Want This" begins fairly simply, uninfected vocals and piano hanging out with a stuttering machine beat, but it quickly becomes evident that the decay is creeping in. The other voices start whispering frightening suggestions, "I have lived so many lives all in my head" and "Maybe this is a cry for help", and you look to the piano for solace, but it fled the scene, and the rusty metal machine music is staring you in the face. You get a break on the beautiful ambient piece "A Warm Place", but it's just clearing the way for the two-wave attack of the lumbering "Eraser", which circles you with a swarm of buzzing noises, disorienting you, before tossing you around like a rag doll, followed by the whirring churn of the sexual epic "Reptile", the guitars slashing and cutting with factory precision. The decay returns again, bleeding through the cracks, barely being kept at bay by the guitar, it is Trent's disease, his infection. By the time the decay has gotten over, the title track is completely destroyed, screaming through a wall of static and wires just to be heard. "Hurt" is one last transmission from the land of the living. The man is infected and dying, devastated by remorse, the machine taken over the body, and decayed beyond the point of return. It's a final gasp of a cautionary tale: "If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way." His mind falls apart, then his body, no longer able to hold on, breaking down like we all do, man and machine decaying together, returning to the Earth.
01. “Mr. Self Destruct”
04. “March Of The Pigs”
07. “The Becoming”
08. “I Do Not Want This”
09. “Big Man With A Gun”
10. “A Warm Place”
13. “The Downward Spiral”
"Closer" [uncensored director's cut video]
- BONUS: "Mr. Self Destruct" [live 1994]
- BONUS: "Piggy" [live, 2000]
- BONUS: "Heresy" [audio]
- BONUS: "March Of The Pigs" [video]
- BONUS: "The Becoming (Still)" [alternate version - live in-studio]
- BONUS: "Eraser" [live 1994]
- BONUS: "Reptile" [live at Woodstock 1994]
- BONUS: 1994 interview with Trent Reznor, talking about TDS