Trent Reznor’s second album as Nine Inch Nails was so far removed from their debut that it could have been recorded by a different band (or at least a different Trent Reznor). The evolution in sound is more pronounced, the writing is more complex, and even the album art, in its perfect visual integration with the music, suggests an altogether different creative mind. That The Downward Spiral has been so justifiably lauded as one of the definitive albums not just of its genre but of the entire decade speaks in part to the mythology surrounding it: Reznor recorded much of it in the same house in the Hollywood Hills where Sharon Tate had been murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969 (unironically Marilyn Manson would record his debut album in the same studio) in what would be a tumultuous process, plagued by Reznor’s mental health and addiction issues, as well as by creative disagreements with co-producer Flood.
Regardless, after spending almost two years on the album Reznor would ultimately create the work for which he would be most frequently associated with: a fully realized and semi-autobiographical concept record built around the “spiral” down which a central protagonist disengages from the society around him, inevitably finding himself alone and on the verge of suicide (there is some debate about whether or not the protagonist does indeed kill himself – the whispered lyrics in the second to last track would suggest that he does, but then the reflective lyrics in the final track suggest otherwise). The concept for the album was conceived after Reznor was inspired by a “negative vibe” felt by the band at a European hotel after the band toured as part of the Lollapalooza lineup. The song cycle, influenced in large part by Pink Floyd’s The Wall and David Bowie’s Low, covers elements of self-destruction, self-control, dehumanization of the self and others, addiction, sex, and anti-conformity. Lead single “March of the Pigs” helps establish this latter sense of contempt for social conformity (“all the pigs are all lined up… Let’s discredit it/ Let’s pick away at it”), which in turn allows for the protagonist to push further away from social acceptance.
Follow up single “Closer” (often frustratingly misinterpreted as a song about carnal desire) doubles down by examining how meaningless sex allows for a temporary but empty reprieve from a “flawed” existence, although only after establishing that there is the need to “violate you... desecrate you…” and “penetrate you”, all suggestions of transgression that bring him “closer to God” through either the hollow superiority of dominance or the fleeting sense of epiphanous release. This use of sex as a means of minimizing or pushing away other people recurs again in “Big Man with a Gun” (“I can reduce you if I want”), “Eraser” (“Use you/ Scar you/ Break you”), and “Reptile”(“Oh my precious whore…/Need to contaminate to alleviate this loneliness”), and suggests that because everyone around the protagonist lacks meaning or identity in these songs, he is entirely alone, save for the addictions that eventually let him down as well (“Hurt”: “the needle tears a hole/ The old familiar sting/ Try to kill it all away/ But I remember everything”).
All these themes are propelled through a sonic landscape that exists in layers of texture, incorporating a combination of guitars and percussion, keyboards, synths, and an array of movie and sound samples, many of which are inverted, repurposed, and re-contextualized. The result sounds at first like cacophonous noise, but through multiple listens filter into driving rhythms, forceful melodies, and, through all of it, Reznor’s plaintive pleas to be heard and understood. Clearly he was, as the album had gone quadruple platinum before the end of the decade, its songs used in films (most famously in the opening credits for David Fincher’s Se7en) and its sound emulated by countless bands. But perhaps the most celebrated accomplishment was iconic singer-songwriter Johnny Cash’s decision in 2002 to cover the song “Hurt”, the final track on The Downward Spiral; the cover and its powerfully moving Mark Romanek-shot video would be Cash’s last great contribution to music, and while the transcendence that he brings to the song gives Reznor’s own words more weight and meaning, the gesture itself suggests that the song – and indeed the entire album – is less a product of the 1990s than it is of the human condition itself.
Nine Inch Nails reputation as a must-see touring act was solidified on their Self-Destruct Tour which ran for a grueling two years. Demand became sky high after the band “stole the show” at Woodstock ’94 which was broadcast to 24 million homes. The band booked three shows at Madison Square Garden and four at the Universal Ampitheatre in L.A.
‘94 also led to a higher production budget: dirty curtains, large-screen visuals, and powerful standing lights. The band would drench their clothing in corn starch before concerts. The band agreed to join David Bowie on a double bill for the North American leg of his tour, which apparently proved to be more of a challenge for Bowie than it was for Trent with an “almost 100% Nails audience.”
Bowie: In those first weeks, we had to adjust emotionally to the fact that we were going to be challenged every night to get in sync with what people were coming to the show for. But then you start to recognize that if you're going to continue, you'd better enjoy what you're doing. The more we did that, the more it communicated to the audience. That's how it went from survival to being a good tour.
We opened for Peter Murphy, up until then we were all fighting for the cause. So we went out and there were these miserable-looking goth kids with huge hair and make-up, competing for who could look the most bored. It just got so irritating, so I picked up a slice of cold pizza and hurled it into the crowd--it hit this kid on the side of his head and his gigantic hair fell over. He had bits of pepperoni stuck to his cheek. Then we started pouring beer on the kids at the front and it was, 'Oh I'm melting, I'm melting. It was the greatest feeling of, FUCK YOU!'
One time in Salt Lake City, we'd invited around 300 people backstage. These two guys stop me and one says, 'Please can you talk to my friend, it would make his day, please.' And there was this guy all kinda sweaty and insane looking. So I'm talking to him and he's touching my hand and shaking and he won't look at me at all when he's talking. Then I notice a hospital wristband on his arm, and his friend tells me he just escaped from the hospital because he only has a week to live. All he's been listening to is Pretty Hate Machine because it gives him hope and he knows how I feel, and all he wanted to do was meet me before he died […] What do you do? What do you say? So I turn around go back into the dressing room, sit on my own and have another beer. I know they didn't do it to make me feel shitty but it's really hard having that kind of responsibility.
I was really into electronic music at the time. David Bowie's 'Low' was probably the single greatest influence on 'The Downward Spiral' for me. I got into Bowie in the 'Scary Monsters' era, then I picked up 'Low' and instantly fell for it. I related to it on a song-writing level, a mood level, and on a song-structure level...I like working within the framework of accessibility, and songs of course, but I also like things that are more experimental and instrumental, maybe
(at Woodstock ’94) … a powerline had fallen on the bus and there was voltage going through the bus while we were on it. I went back to the bunks: “Guys, don’t panic, but try to touch any metal.” […] I walk to the front of the bus and I see fucking Crosby, Stills, and Nash looking in and a sea of cameras seeing my in my underpants. Hi everybody! That was the most nerve-wracking day of my life.