The Downward Spiral
Interscope Records, 1994
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/21/1998
Trying to cover as many different artists as possible, sometimes one forgets some of the moments that make you glad you love music.
Reader Anne Parks recently signed our guestbook, and mentioned that one of her favorite albums was Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. I read that, and flashed back to a day in 1992, when I discovered Trent Reznor for the first time. I had just been sent Broken to review, and had popped it into the Walkman as I left the dorm to go to my first class. And the sonic assault on my eardrums had me ripping the headphones off and asking, "Damn! Who was that?!? That was incredible!"
Jump forward to 1994, when Reznor's second full-length release finally hit the stores, his first full-length album with a major label. And while The Downward Spiral contains some music which is just as powerful as what I was first weaned on, it also shows that, sometimes, smaller doses of Reznor are the best medicine.
Recruiting King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew to help on a few tracks, and again working with Alan Moulder and Flood, Reznor quickly welcomed you to his version of hell with "Mr. Self Destruct," a feedback-laden number that continued the path of nihilism and despair that Reznor had started on back with "Head Like A Hole". But Reznor quickly shows that he's just as capable of delivering a message without the shouting and overamplification on "Piggy". (Pigs were an underlying theme of The Downward Spiral - though I can't explain why this is so.)
But Nine Inch Nails really began to find their market with "Closer," a song in which Reznor croons to his beloved: "I wanna fuck you like an animal / I want to feel you from the inside". Such an unlikely song to be Reznor's first true "hit", it thrust Reznor into the limelight and into the world of hipness. (Another song which didn't get as much hype, "March Of The Pigs," was just as good, and reminded me a lot of the Broken-era Nine Inch Nails.)
But Reznor would truly earn his stripes with the single "Hurt," another song which emphasized the ballad over noise, even though a fair amount of ambient noise is in the background. Only problem is, this song got so overplayed that I soon got sick of hearing it. Four years after the album came out, hearing it isn't as bad, but when some stations played it every freaking hour, it makes you want to go postal.
But the weakness of The Downward Spiral is its own ambition. After being silenced for so long, it seemed that Reznor wanted to say everything he had meant to in the previous five years. And eventually, the nonstop barrage on your ears gets to be a bit too much. (This could explain why Reznor moved towards ballads occasionally.) Some songs like "Ruiner" and "I Do Not Want This" do stand out, but by the time you reach the title track near the end of the album, you feel like Roberto Duran yelling "No mas" in the boxing ring. In a sense, it's almost as if Reznor runs out of gas as he gets closer to the end.
Oh, don't get me wrong, The Downward Spiral is still very much an enjoyable listen. But one wonders what would have happened, say, if Reznor had chopped it into two albums. Quite possibly, some of the songs that got lost in the synthesized haze would have moved closer to the front, and have received more attention. Instead, Reznor just tried a little too hard.
Nine Inch Nails fans, of course, will treat this release like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it's definitely worth adding to your collection. But just like you don't eat the whole chocolate bar in one gulp, it's better to bite off bits of The Downward Spiral at a time.