When happiness makes your skin crawl, and cynicism is the only coping mechanism you have to stagger through this cruel world, there’s a possibility you’re being cradled in the warmth of a downward spiral. It’s a relatable perspective to those who have endured pain and suffering, and a subject that was (and continues to be) considered dark and taboo when discussed within mainstream art. However, Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor has always been one to challenge the ideas audiences and the wider entertainment industry deem ‘acceptable’ and ‘positive’.

On March 8th 1994, Nine Inch Nails released what would become their most famous, controversial, and daring body of work to date. The Downward Spiral is the band’s second studio album and their first major commercial breakthrough regarding chart performance and sales. Coming off the success of their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989), and their debut EP, Broken (1992), Nine Inch Nails already had the alternative scene talking about their particular sound and looks, which pulled from the likes of Ministry and The Cure. With Reznor being inspired by David Bowie’s Low (1977) and Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall (1979), The Downward Spiral saw him pull elements from the two albums: the ambience and experimentation of Low combined with the concept album and anti-societal tone of The Wall. With this, Reznor created an album for the brooding and tortured outcasts of the world.

30 years onward, The Downward Spiral continues to be regarded as one of the most original, innovative and ground-breaking industrial rock albums ever released. Reznor’s ability to discuss themes of mental illness, politics, nihilism and abuse in such a direct and unflinching way was, at the time, shocking and sent the media into a frenzy. Reznor had various groups across the United States up in arms and enraged over the album’s release. However, that was a general reaction to post-satanic panic rock music, and The Downward Spiral is still a heavily misunderstood and underrated body of work, with its two commercially successful songs ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’ discussed to the ends of the earth.



Album Overview

As seen with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, concept albums within the rock genre had been done before but weren’t common. Reznor used an album concept as a tool to explore The Downward Spiral’s themes in a way that could show the listener how nihilism toward oneself and the world can quickly turn into an abyss the soul struggles to escape. Entirely written and produced by Reznor (with additional production by Flood), the album’s concept follows a character who essentially experiences different forms of physical, mental and spiritual pain to the point that the only way he sees an end is possibly through death. The album’s opener ‘Mr Self Destruct’ is relentless with its walls of harsh noise and Reznor’s distorted vocals, which, from the character’s perspective, sing, I am the voice inside your head (and I control you)”. With this, the album’s tone is immediately set, and the following track ‘Piggy’ introduces the album’s sonic motif, which repeats the character’s mantra, “Nothing can stop me now”, as if repeating those words is a coping mechanism to convince himself this path is the only option for him.

‘March Of The Pigs’, The Downward Spiral’s lead single, is a tongue-in-cheek and high-energy (269 BPM to be exact) anthem that explores the character engaging with fake people who wear masks. The song is one of the band’s most popular songs to date and has been a crowd favourite at Nine Inch Nails concerts since it released. The next track, ‘Closer’, is the second single from the album and Nine Inch Nails’ most popular and controversial song of all time. The infamous chorus lyric, I wanna f*ck you like an animal, I wanna feel you from the inside,” in combination with the song’s erotic and danceable atmosphere, has created constant misinterpretation over the decades as listeners have associated it with intimacy, whereas the song is incredibly dark and self-destructive. The reputation surrounding this song also comes from its infamous music video, directed by Mark Romanek.

Although every song on the album is deep with intricacy and genius, other standouts include ‘The Becoming’ with its witchy angst, ‘A Warm Place’ for its safe and blissful ambience à la Brian Eno, and the hellish droning heard in ‘Reptile’. The album’s Grammy-nominated closing track ‘Hurt’ is widely recognised not only for its nauseating and soul-crushing lyrics on giving up to deadly self-destruction but also for Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover, which reinterpreted the song’s lyrics in relation to his reflections on his life and mortality. The original version of ‘Hurt’ has many interpretations as to what the final fate of the character is; however, it’s assumed to be death.




Now, with 30 years’ worth of impact and legacy under its belt, The Downward Spiral continues to be an innovative and original body of work not only within the rock world but also within the music industry itself. Many albums have attempted to emulate the meticulous concepts and soundscapes Reznor achieved within this record and haven’t come close. It’s an album that’s universal in its themes and will seek you out when you need it most. Although it was seen as a commercial success upon release, selling over three million units, it’s possibly too profound for general audiences as the average person is trying not to give into their darkness (such as the album’s character). The Downward Spiral caught the attention of the likes of Reznor’s hero, David Bowie, who performed ‘Hurt’ with Reznor when Nine Inch Nails were his opening act during the Outside Tour. ‘Closer’ continues to live on in its popularity (and is still heavily misunderstood). For an album that’s three decades old and continues to feel modern in both its songwriting and production, The Downward Spiral is a masterpiece of a lifetime that will, without a doubt, find its audience within each generation to come.