Nine Inch Nails' 'the Downward Spiral' At 25: All The Ranked Worst To Best
Is there a more menacing album to have penetrated the 1990s pop consciousness as profoundly as Nine Inch Nails’ second album, The Downward Spiral? Doubtful.
While NIN’s debut, 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, certainly put Ohio-bred industrial rocker Trent Reznor and his gritty, mechanical sound on the map, reaching No. 75 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, its follow up was a whole different deal -- it was so subversive, so concerning for parents that the government even got involved.
Recorded in the Hollywood house where the Manson Family murdered five people, including actress Sharon Tate, the release turned Reznor into a massive star, one known for turning inward to unleash the demons from the dark corners of his mind. It opens with the sound of a man being beaten by a prison guard, sampled from the George Lucas film THX1138. Fitting, as the LP is themed around violence and self-flagellation, addiction and self-loathing. Then, of course, there’s the multiple references to “Pig,” one of the words written on the door of the home, back on the fateful night in 1969, in their victims’ blood.
Revisiting the album 25 years later, one thing is clear: gritty and aggressive, but at times tender an atmospheric, it’s a musical masterpiece that hasn’t dated sonically -- its production value is impressive, despite a quarter century of technological development in studio wizardry. Reznor is a master of his technological domain.
Ranking its 15 tracks is tough—there are anthemic singles, haunting ballads, screeching guitar seizures, and atmospheric interludes. But here we go…
14. “The Downward Spiral”
It’s 3:56 seconds of, perhaps, the most unremarkable atmospherics, acoustic noodling, and drowned-out electric guitar tangles on the entire album. The LP's melodic motifs reappear before being drowned out, but maybe that’s the point: Reznor is exhausted, and ready to set the stage for the closing act -- the album’s final (and most beautiful and confessional track) “Hurt.”
13. “Big Man with a Gun”
The most controversial song on the album is also one of its worst. Targeted by conservatives, including Senator and then Republican party leader Bob Dole, the song is a near-clichéd blast of industrial angst. Reznor’s lyrics don’t fare much better: “I am a big man (Yes I am)/ And I have a big gun/ Got me a big old dick and I/ I like to have fun/ Held against your forehead/ I'll make you suck it.” Republicans, naturally, took this as an insult aimed at them, while Reznor claimed it was a dis at misogynistic hip-hop acts.
Following from the preceding "Eraser" on Spiral, "Reptile" continues down a similarly ambitious musical path. At 6:51, it’s the longest song on the album; Reznor reportedly would have liked to have released as a single. Again, it’s a collision of layered sounds -- how many tracks are really here? -- proving again his genius with the technology at this finger tips. When you hear this song, there’s no wonder Reznor went on to a very successful career in film soundtracks.
One of the more experimental, arty songs on an album full of ‘em, “Eraser” is an epic of sound design -- patchwork melodies and layered vocals rise and fall, with a barrage of sounds taking center stage, then recede into the darkness. Reznor is curt, screaming: “Need you. Dream you. Find you. Taste you. Fuck you. Use you. Scar you. Break you. Lose me. Hate me. Smash me. Erase me. Kill me.”
10. “A Warm Place”
This instrumental song -- a, ahem, nod to the warm, safe place provided by a heroin high? -- is exactly as its inspiration would suggest: slow-burning, gorgeous, comforting, blissed-out. It’s three minutes and 22 seconds of rest, of cuddling and comfort, buffering the raw blasts in between.
9. “Mr. Self Destruct”
Once we get passed the opening beats (well, beatings), the song becomes a clattering razor edge with stabbing guitars. Reznor dials up the chills with pauses of plucking synths and just-under-the-surface roiling until -- boom -- the machine starts up again: “I am the needle in your vein/ I am the high you can't sustain/ I am the pusher, I'm a whore/ I am the need you have for more.” There isn’t a more on-the-nose song about Reznor’s pain and drug addiction during this era.
A sampler of sounds come together here, sounding like a warped far-future version of Depeche Mode (some of the sessions were produced by that band’s longtime collaborator, Flood). Skittering break beats, club synths and grindcore guitars are tapped together, collage style. There’s even a guitar hero, Hendrix-in-Terminator-style breakdown: “You had all of them on your side didn't you?/ You believe in all your lies didn't you?/ The ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe.”
7. “The Becoming”
An example of how melodic industrial music can actually be, a few progressive -- albeit still goose bump-inducing -- melodies collide here over burbling synths and screeching samples of screams. It’s perfect haunted house music: “He's covered with scabs and he is broken and sore/ The me that you know doesn't come around much/ That part of me isn't here anymore/ All pain disappears it's the nature of my circuitry.” Bridging organic and non-organic music, Reznor is part man, part machine.
6. “I Do Not Want This”
With a looping beat, created by recording Porno for Pyros drummer Steve Perkins in the studio, this glorious cacophony of grinding guitars and slicing atmospherics finds Reznor unleashing on himself: “I have lived so many lives all in my head/ Don't tell me that you care/ There really isn't anything, is there?”
“God is dead/ And no one cares/ If there is a hell/ I’ll see you there.” Reznor goes all in on this grinding, live wire steam engine. He screams, squeals in a lullaby-like lilt, and explodes over chugging guitars and ice-knife synths. It’s quintessentially industrial.
The theme is omnipresent: The word “Pig” was famously written on the walls of 10050 Cielo Drive in Tate’s own blood, and became a calling card of the infamous murders (it was reportedly a reference to the Beatles’ White Album jam “Piggies”). In light of this, Reznor named the home’s studio Le Pig, and released this hypnotic, unsettling downtempo jam -- featuring his only appearance on drums -- as a promotional single.
3. “March of the Pigs”
You know the words -- who doesn’t? Though written about obsession and interpersonal relationships, this dystopian dance track from the nuclear future became NIN’s most popular song when interpreted as a primal call to animalistic mating. The Mark Romanek-directed music video music video only reinforced that sentiment, with its monkeys tied to crosses, severed pig's heads and S&M gear.