Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Part 14 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

It seems strange but in 1995 David Bowie wasn’t really considered all that cool anymore. Sure, his 70’s (and for the truly hip, even his late 60’s singles) records would always have new fans and admirers – people who would hear 1 classic record and instantly have to buy them all. It was generally accepted that everything up through Scary Monsters ranged from good to masterpiece while he quickly dropped off as he made a bid for the mainstream with 1983’s Let’s Dance (compare Bowie’s version of China Girl to Iggy Pop’s from 1977. You’ll see what I mean). After a few middling records followed by a stint as “just one of the guys” in the band Tin Machine, Bowie seemed to be making strides towards getting his 70’s mojo back. 1993’s Black Tie White Noise was a nice start in this direction and 1995’s Outside took it a step further. Compounding all of this, Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” from Bowie’s 1970 album was constantly on the radio in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain‘s suicide.

It is safe to say that when I bought tickets to the joint Nine Inch Nails / David Bowie concert in the fall of 1995, I was curious about Bowie but mostly looking forward to seeing Nine Inch Nails.

Nine Inch Nails in my mind seemed to exist in a time and space all of their own. As I discovered edgier artists I was initially drawn to the debut, Pretty Hate Machine. Angry screaming but with very strong melodies, lyrics raging against things I hadn’t ever heard vocalized in quite that way before. Broken was a stop-gap EP released 3 years later. Quite possibly one of the noisiest mini records ever released. I loved both of those records, but nothing prepared me for the 1994 record The Downward Spiral. Simultaneously aggressive but full of melody, touching but also offensive (to some) – it touched on every aspect of music / pop culture that I was into at age 17.

Mysterious t-shirts with the famous NIN logo (prompting a friend of mine’s mother to exclaim “aw…you’re my little nine inch nail”), a controversial video for the single “Closer”, and a b-side cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” meant that I was in heaven. Nine Inch Nails’ version of this song allowed the lyrics to be examined closely prompting some in my conservative world at the time to exclaim that the song was going down a very dark path (Sorry, just a good old-fashioned Joy Division cover concerned people). All in all – this album and time period in the history of Nine Inch Nails defines the rage of youth in a way that few other records of the time did.

You could have it all…

Mr. Self Destruct gets the album started with an almost military like drum beat before guitars, synths, and screaming come in at the same time offering up an orchestra of noise and mayhem. Very angry feel to this song (a feeling that will be repeated throughout the album). An exhilarating way to start the record. Key lyrics:

I am the truth from which you run
and I control you
I am the silencing machine
and I control you
I am the end of all your dreams
and I control you
I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down I use you up
Mr. Self-destruct

Piggy slows the tempo way down sounding like something that would have fit in well on Tori Amos’ album Under the PinkSoulful singing by Trent Reznor with a very catch melody to the song. Lots of electronic embellishments as the song progresses, leading to an overwhelming sense of dread. In other words – perfection. Very heavy percussion throughout the song, though every time it sounds like it will explode in a Nirvana-ish wall of noise, it holds back. Beauty in restraint. Key lyrics:

hey pig
nothing’s turning out the way I planned
hey pig there’s a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand
what am I supposed to do I lost my shit because of you
nothing can stop me now
I don’t care anymore
nothing can stop me now
I just don’t care
nothing can stop me now
you don’t need me anymore

Heresy – To me this song perfectly fits as the soundtrack to the 90’s. Nihilistic lyrics, acute observations of faith (or lack of). A song that is both extremely catchy whilst also providing the listener with a sense of uneasiness. Should you be singing along with these lyrics? Whether you agree with them or  not (I’m not saying what my view is) there is no denying that the angst, rage, and sense of desolation seem to come from somewhere real in the world of Trent Reznor. The song has an almost sing-a-long electro vibe throughout (think Depeche Mode or Soft Cell) before exploding into a punk rock chorus (think Big Black). Key lyrics:

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

March of the Pigs very strong drums to start out before a pulsating electronic riff comes into play. Trent Reznor screams and guitars come in over top of everything. Music slows down to a sinister refrain with whispered vox before it all fades away “now doesn’t that make you feel better” before starting it all up in its glorious noise again. A noisy masterpiece of a song. Key lyrics:

step right up march push
crawl right up on your knees
please greed feed (no time to hesitate)
I want a little bit I want a piece of it I think he’s losing it
I want to watch it come down
don’t like the look of it don’t like the taste of it don’t like the smell of it
I want to watch it come down
all the pigs are all lined up
I give you all that you want
take the skin and peel it back
now doesn’t that make you feel better?

Closer If you are a child of the 90’s like I am, this song needs no introduction. Very strong pulsating beat with a throwback sound to the 80’s. A huge hit for Nine Inch Nails and I can see why – its catchy but also captures the angst of youth through its dark lyrics. The beat progresses throughout the song, engaging the listener on a visceral level. Sinister tones in the background eventually becoming the focal point by the end of the song. Key lyrics:

You let me violate you, you let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you, you let me complicate you
Help me I broke apart my insides, help me I’ve got no soul to sell
Help me the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself

My whole existence is flawed
You get me closer to god
You can have my isolation, you can have the hate that it brings

My whole existence is flawed
You get me closer to god

Through every forest, above the trees
Within my stomach, scraped off my knees
I drink the honey inside your hive
You are the reason I stay alive

Ruiner a techno beat and feeling to start this song, explodes in noise after a minute completely changing the feel of the song. Voice and instruments are all separated perfectly, it has to be said – the production of this record is simply stunning. Noise fades away and we are back to the Nine Inch Nails version of a techno song. The song repeats this trick a few times, simply has to be heard to take in how perfectly executed it is. Key lyrics:

you had all of them on your side, didn’t you? didn’t you?
you believed in all your lies, didn’t you? didn’t you?
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

The Becoming a deeper album cut, dark beats and electronics with Trent crooning over top of it. Absolutely essential for the vibe of the album. Key lyrics:

I beat my machine it’s a part of me it’s inside of me
I’m stuck in this dream it’s changing me I am becoming
the me that you know he had some second thoughts
he’s covered with scabs and he is broken and sore
the me that you know doesn’t come around much
that part of me isn’t here anymore
all pain disappears it’s the nature of my circuitry
drowns out all I hear there’s no escape from this my new consciousness
the me that you know used to have feelings
but the blood has stopped pumping and he’s left to decay
the me that you know is now made up of wires
and even when I’m right with you I’m so far away

I Do Not Want This scattered drums with an incessant electronic beat behind that. The song progresses from a dark synth type piece into a thrash metal piece, if only for just a bit. Another deeper album cut. Key lyrics:

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
I’m always falling down the same hill
bamboo puncturing this skin
and nothing comes bleeding out of me just like a waterfall I’m drowning in
2 feet below the surface I can still make out your wavy face
and if I could just reach you maybe I could leave this place
I do not want this
I do not want this

Big Man With a Gun Sinister short electronic piece mocking the misogynist mindset. Not the deepest lyrics of Trent’s career, but a nice little song that segues into…

A Warm Place A respite from the nihilism, foreshadowing the soundtrack work Trent Reznor would eventually win an Oscar for. Warm electronic tones assuring the listener that despite the bleak worldview of the record, there may be hope after all.

Eraser has a very strong drum sound again, starts with manipulated voices sounding like something off of a Residents album. Synths come to the surface, another mood piece. The song gets noisier as it progresses before becoming very quiet. The song explodes into a thrash metal symphony with Trent screaming things such as:

Scar you
Break you
Lose me
Hate me
Smash me
Erase me
Kill me

Reptile starts off as a soundscape with tinkering electronics before shifting into a slow sludgy metal song. More of a deeper album cut. Key lyrics:

devils speak of the ways in which she’ll manifest
angels bleed from the tainted touch of my caress
need to contaminate to alleviate this loneliness
I now know the depths I reach are limitless

The Downward Spiral mournful lament of life’s failures. Acoustic guitar embellishments over an electronic whistling effect. Atmosphere builds as the song progresses. With a minute left it shifts into a thrashy metal piece. Key lyrics:

everything’s blue
in this world
the deepest shade of mushroom blue
all fuzzy
spilling out of my head

Hurt the pinnacle of the album, everything has led to this point. One of the greatest ballads of all time, later famously covered by Johnny Cash. The original is no less wonderful, no less emotional. A lament, regrets laid bare. This song (in either of its famous versions) never fails to reach down into my soul. Absolute perfection. Key lyrics:

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

That fateful fall night in 1995, I stood at a concert venue in Camden, NJ. I watched Bowie’s set – unimpressed except for the snippets that he played of “The Man Who Sold The World” – at this point in his career he was still refusing to play most of his hits. Nine Inch Nails were absolutely stunning. Unfortunately for me (the awkward geeky guy) I was standing next to some hardcore metal heads who were unintentionally whipping me with their hair while they head banged. The encore of that night was David Bowie singing with Trent Reznor on the hit single “Hurt”. Two legends lost in the music singing their hearts out. I’d like to think that these moments spurred Bowie on for the rest of his recording career, as he truly found his muse shortly after. That moment – two legends singing “Hurt” – is forever etched in my memory.

Join me next week as I discuss NOFX’s Punk In Drublic 

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