Nine Inch Nails
March 8, 1994
Nothing/Interscope Records (UK releases are Nothing/Island Records.)
Nine Inch Nails' 8th 'halo' release is an unforgettable examination of the downward spiral of a suicidal man.
Writing, arrangement and performance: Trent Reznor
Production: Trent Reznor and Flood
- Mr. Self Destruct (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Texture generating guitars by Adrian Belew)
- Piggy (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- Heresy (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- March of the Pigs (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- Closer (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Special hi-hat programming by Flood)
- Ruiner (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- The Becoming (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Ring mod guitar by Adrian Belew. ARP 2600 by Flood)
- I do not want this (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Drum performance by Stephen Perkins. Drum treatment by Flood and Trent Reznor)
- Big Man with a Gun (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineers: Billy Kennedy and Sean Beavan. Additional guitars by Danny Lohner. Steakhouse by Tommy Lee)
- A warm place (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- Eraser (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- Reptile (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
- The Downward Spiral (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Drums by Andy Kubiszewski)
- Hurt (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixed by Trent Reznor. Drums by Chris Vrenna)
History and message of the album
After Broken and Fixed, Reznor began work on this album, the idea for which he had had many years before. It chronicles a journey of self-destruction, and is a story. Those who intimate that Reznor's writing in the first person suggests that it is his own downward spiral are missing the point.
This album contains some of the most lyrically excellent of NIN's corpus of songs, and probably the most complicated halo to date. Every time I listen to it, I hear or realise something new.
During the so-called 'self destruct' era, 1994-1995, Nine Inch Nails released this album; March of the Pigs - a single; Closer to God - a collection of remixes of the song Closer; and Further Down the Spiral, the remix LP for this album.
The Downward Spiral comes in a cardboard slip, with a slim 'single' style jewel case for the CD and a separate lyrics and credits booklet.
The cardboard slip is adorned by an artwork of Russell Mills, who also produced the art inside the lyrics booklet. They seem to show a floor which gradually has more and more feathers and blood thrown onto it, representing the eventual death of the subject of this album.
The overall style of the packaging is minimalist, with blue lowercase type on a white background throughout the booklet. The CD itself despicts a stylised white spiral. US copies have the halo number printed on back of the outer slip, bottom centre. UK releases do not.
So as not to tread on Piter's toes, I have attempted to concentrate on the musical aspects of the songs, and any aspects of the lyrics I feel he has missed.
- Mr. Self Destruct
The album opens strongly with this heavy industrial song dominated by guitars and white noise. Its two quiter respites are both beautiful and effective in making the otherwise unrelenting sound even more oppressive. The 'outro' to this song is quite rightly very famous. I believe that the 'you' in the chorus mentioned by Piter is actually our 'hero', who is letting these things take over and eventually destroy his life.
Piggy has a much less intense sound, but builds up towards the end, as the drums take over, almost swallow the lyrics. The character of 'piggy' is a very interesting one who is pivotal to our hero's story.
Heresy opens with a pounding drum beat and a very distorted lead voice. The chorus ('Your god is dead and no one cares / if there is a hell I'll see you there') is very memorable, and suggests to us that the 'you' of this story ('piggy') has a faith in the Christian God.
- March of the Pigs
This fast, ranting song introduces our hero's destructive feelings and his feelings of rejection from society. The concept of 'pigs' is an interesting one. If 'piggy' is a Christian, it is possible that the pigs are Christians too. It could also just mean 'people like piggy'.
Probably the album's most famous track, this 'dancey' track, with its samples of cars and slow drum beat, explores the hero's former relationship to 'piggy' some more. I believe that the lines 'You let me...' are in the past tense, telling us that 'piggy' no longer lets him do these things, hence his antagonism. The line 'I want to fuck you like an animal' is puzzling. These appear to be the words of someone who has not done such a thing, but it is clear from the first lines that he has. He appears to be totally dependent on 'piggy'. The final section, with its whispered lines and whiny outro, is rightly celebrated.
Contrary to Piter, I believe that the first few lines of Ruiner still refer to 'Piggy', lending further credence to the fact that she has recently come to a belief in God: '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.' Obviously however, the 'you' after this section is not 'piggy'. It seems that our subject also used to subscribe to the Christian faith: 'maybe it's a part of me you took it to a place I hoped it would never go / and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know.' This song, with its screamed chorus and fast drum beats and hi-hats, is a perfect depiction of our hero's rage against God.
- The Becoming
Probably my favourite lyrical track on the album, this has a fast, futuristic sound at the start which breaks down into a strong rhythm with sounds of screaming in the background. It depicts a man now totally separated from the rest of humanity. One has to wonder if this is the point of no return for him. The last two lines appear to point to some kind of mental illness haunting and hounding him until the end.
- I do not want this
For perhaps the first time in his journey, our 'hero' talks directly about his seemingly inevitable suicide. It appears that 'piggy' has tried to help him, but he has pushed her away: 'Don't tell me that you care / There really isn't anything now, is there?' The final lines are both disturbingly frank and easy to empathise with. The music builds up with them to move into Big Man with a Gun
- Big Man with a Gun
Once again building to a climax, this song seems to begin with our hero mocking rap music and its culture of violence and misogyny, or simply raging against violence and rape in general, and slowly realising that he has become exactly the same. The screams of 'me and my fucking gun' at the end of the song are very disturbing, and the beginning of 'A warm place' is a release.
- A warm place
My favourite track on the album. Through the music alone, it simultaneously conveys feelings of hope and overwhelming sadness. Sit back and enjoy the beauty.
Eraser begins with a long introduction, before the vocals return, with our hero apparently fantasizing about 'piggy'. However, he suddenly comes to a realisation that he has been rejected by 'piggy', and his rage increases as he shouts 'kill me' to the end of the track. Whether this shows that he longs for death, or whether it is short for 'You kill me' is unclear.
This song, with its memorable repetitive element composed of a chainsaw and the shutter action of a camera (yes, really), talks about our hero's continued ambivalence and rage toward 'piggy', and his own impurity. However, another source1 suggests that this song is telling the story of our hero's visit to a whore, and his disgust at her. I still think this is about piggy and how she has compromised herself, possibly to the ruiner.
- The Downward Spiral
The title track, with its haunting background reminiscent of a vast desert and apparently sampled from bees, appears to depict our hero actually committing suicide. It is my belief, however, that it is merely him toying with the idea. In either case, it is an excellent description of a suicidal person's feelings toward the action.
The final track has a similar background to the previous track, and is very much cut down. It sees our hero looking back on his life, and apparently threatening to carry out his act to make 'piggy' hurt. The line 'you could have it all' echoes Closer, but he now acknowledges that he has nothing to give. The final four lines and the music which drowns the last line seem to suggest that he finally commits suicide at the end of this song. This is backed up by the background afterwards, composed once again of bees.
My thoughts on the album
This is, without a doubt, my favourite album. The lyrics are complex, yet cathartic, and totally accurate to the feelings of one contemplating suicide. I am yet to find someone who has contemplated suicide who disagrees with the feelings expressed in this album, or one contemplating suicide who would not be helped by this album.
Those who say Reznor's music is angsty are missing the point. This is a story, written with a purpose, and should be read and listened to as such.
James Salvatore & Brian Cancellieri. Music from the Underground - A Dissertation on The Downward Spiral. http://www.4degreez.com/nailz/ninterpretations/downspiral.html