Music Features

Happy Anniversary... The Downward Spiral

The Downward Spiral is an anomaly. It is the success that doesn't make sense, no matter which angle you tackle it from. How did an industrial metal concept album, whose main character is on a mission of self-destruction and whose most famous single has an f-bomb in the middle of the chorus, sell more than four million copies? How does it become one of, if not the defining album of the year, and one of the best of the decade?
While there were likely many outside factors that contributed to its success (the band's growing fanbase and live reputation, the dark experimentalism that was prevalent and popular in the early 90s, Closer's freaky-but-can't-look-away music video), the simple truth is that The Downward Spiral is a masterful album from beginning to end. It seems that every year or two, there is an album that demands the world's attention. Sometimes it gets it, sometimes it doesn't. This one did.
The story of a rock star's journey through self-destruction, burning everything and everyone in his life, is a motif that had previously been touched on by other artists, but never explored to such an extent. It pushes Trent Reznor and ourselves further into the abyss than we would want to go, but never goes too far (well, okay, maybe Big Man With A Gun was a little much). Instead, the album is a rabbit hole that we can't help but go down. 
The main reason we choose to follow Reznor down is the music. The Downward Spiral is brimming from top to bottom with fantastic songs that don't abide by any audible rules or cues. Between its uses of distortion, sampling and off-beat time signatures, the record somehow crafts chaos into melodies and rhythms. The Becoming rides a manipulated piano line to a sample of screams from the movie Robot Jox. The track keeps building until it fades into a gentle acoustic guitar, only to build back into an explosive, screeched outro. March of the Pigs is probably the most popular song in music history with a 29/8 time signature and takes the loud/soft dynamic to its extreme. The mechanical percussion of Ruiner slams into a deafening synth chorus, followed by the most fuzzed-out guitar solo this side of the 70s
The further down the album you go, the more difficult the songs seem to get. But by this point, any listener is either hooked or left sometime around the first "God is dead" scream on Heresy. A Warm Place is nearly an ambient track, with only touches of piano to latch onto in a wave of sound. Eraser is a buildup of buzzing synths, needling guitars and pounding drums to one of the most destructive minutes put on record. Reptile is a mix of industrial noises, grungy guitars and what sounds like a swarm of insects scrambling over each other, a spine-tingling moment and not in a good way.
And we haven't even gotten to Closer. What can really be said about that song? Starting with the heartbeat drum sample from Iggy Pop's Nightclubbing, the warped keyboard pattern sounds like it's being played underwater. For the chorus, it's joined by another riff that's jumping out of its own skin. Layer after layer of percussion and synths are stacked for the extended outro, ending on a simple piano line known as the "Downward Spiral" motif.
"If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way," Reznor sings as the fragile classic Hurt bursts and fades away into white noise. Now, 20 years later, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails is basically a million miles away from where he was when he made The Downward Spiral. While arguments are made all the time as to whether he ever topped it, he never tried to repeat it. This is one of those "lightning in a bottle" albums, where Reznor took every negative emotion he felt and used it to craft of the most definitive albums of his generation. Unlike its ending, the record will never fade away. No matter how dark it may seem from the outside, this is one album that keeps drawing us back in to spiral down again.