The Downward Spiral review by Nine Inch Nails

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  • Released: Mar 8, 1994
  • Sound: 10
  • Lyrics: 10
  • Overall Impression: 10
  • Reviewer's score: 10 Gem
  • Users' score: 9.6 (102 votes)
Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral

Sound — 10
The album constantly skirts the line between noise and melody in much the same way the character described in the lyrics will struggle between humanity and nihilism. Trent Reznor uses every instrument to it's full potential including his voice. The samples symbolize what is going on in the story told throughout the album. The guitar will switch between acoustic and distorted depending on the mood and power of the character. The drums emphasize when something tragic is happening in the story. His vocals obviously show the emotion in the man to the fullest extent. Every song is filled with a vast amount of emotion and feeling.

Lyrics — 10
Stripped down and reduced to its basic framework, The Downward Spiral is the state of modern man living in a world of absolute ideologies that have escaped his grasp and now betray him rather than serve him. It is man in a world that shackles him with the freedom it promises, and draws him to either stagnation, abuse, or self destruction. Mr. Self-Destruct: A song that hints at the themes of the album, and foreshadows the events that are to come. The implications are that self-destruction lies in what you desire the most, because it is that which holds the true power over you. Piggy: The actual story begins with with this song. Piggy refers to an ex-lover who no longer needed the character. When the main character is rejected, his control is shattered and he's left impotent. The piggy's ability to escape his grasp injures him to the core and leaves him chanting pathetically the mantra that will re-manifest itself later on, "nothing can stop me now." Heresy: This song is about the man's metaphysical rebellion against God and the kingdom of God. When the character dethrones God in a fit of indignation, he does more than just kill the deity. When the kingdom of God falls all that was tied to it falls as well, including any sense of meaning or moral order. Although he does not yet realize it, this act that promised absolute freedom ensures that the character will be enslaved. March Of the Pigs: The song is a clear denunciation of a greedy, cannibalistic world whose members thrive on watching the downfall of others. The character's hatred of this world makes him desire it to suffer the same fate to which it condemns its victims. The world he sees himself up against is not a world of humans, but God's kingdom of pigs made in His image. The man cannot connect with this world, cannot come to terms with its uncaring disposition. He is unable to see others as human, unable to love or trust another. He can't be a part of the world so it must pay. Closer: is about how the complete submission of his partner to all his abuses empowers him in the most complete way. And through this empowerment he is able to escape his life as a helpless victim and feel what he perceives to be the control of God. The character knows that, on some level, his control is an illusion, but he accepts it anyway. In fact, one of the paradoxes of his life, at this point, is that he is ready to surrender himself completely for control of another. Ruiner: is about the most explicit condemnation of not only God, as the ultimate abuser and deceiver, but as well as of any faith in God. The man's perception of his relationship with God is one of control and abuse. It is the same as the relationship he had with the piggy and with society, only the roles are reversed. He is now at the height of his power, and the mantra of "nothing can stop me now" is no longer weak and pathetic as it was in piggy. But he is cut short in mid-sentence at the end of the song: "nothing can stop...." Apparently something can and will stop him, something that has been working against him all along, something with more power to hurt him than God; the source of his deception, himself. The Becoming: is about when he begins to realize what kind of path he is truly on. The suffering man who once rebelled against the cruel nature of his situation now finds inside himself something crueler; the nihilistic voice of indifference. After God is eliminated, the focus on the album is on a new struggle, an internal one. The humanity of the man finds itself up against its mechanical counterpart. Deeper than his conflict with God, this conflict threatens to take his humanity from him and replace it with a mechanical world of social and moral stagnation. At this point the man knows what he has done, knows that he has betrayed himself, but doesn't know what to do about it. Then the song breaks, something within the man cannot accept what is happening, and is trying to resist, but can't find the strength to do anything but to hide passively. It knows it can't remain hidden forever, but it cannot act. Backed into a corner, the human voice finally discovers the strength to protest, moving from passive to active resistance, with a tortured scream, "it won't give up. it wants me dead, god damn this noise inside my head." I Do Not Want This: At this point something changes the music becomes more chaotic and piercing; as the human voice is once again ready to be subdued, another option is discovered. The next phase of the metaphysical rebellion becomes clear in the midst of the noise. The mechanical voice was able to arise out of the absence of meaning, so perhaps the character can escape it by establishing a new moral order. He reaches for the unoccupied throne. His voice is dripping with desire as he utters those words laced with sexual potency. Finally, he tells himself, I will have absolute power. I will be totally free. I will be untouched by the limits of humanity. Finally he rises up and does something that matters. Now he will become the ruiner. Big Man With A Gun: The man is now in God's position. But just as the ruiner terrorized him, he will terrorize others. His whole conception of God was of one who controlled and abused, not because the nature of God is such, but because his nature is such. The man's tragic flaw is that he is unable to connect with the world around him, to see others as humans rather than pigs, and because of this he can only be a ruiner. This kingdom of man is loud, violent, frantic, and anything but stable. As the man screams, "nothing can stop me now," his world is once again collapsing around him. Try as he might, man cannot take the place of God; it is not within his power. So the character's attempt to assume the role fails, throwing him back to the fate that had already almost conquered him; his mechanical side. A Warm Place: is as sad as it is beautiful. Following the failing fury of "big man with a gun," this instrumental is hauntingly tranquil. The song represents a major turning point in the story; it is a tragic moment of profound realization. All that he has done has finally been made clear, his shift from ruined to ruiner, and his role at the center of it all. He realizes that his entire life has been a continuing cycle of inflicting pain upon others in order to escape his own pain, and the humanity still intact within him is horrified. He sees the violence he is, and will be, responsible for. A new option is opened up for him, a new way to escape the mechanical voice that has retreated but is not yet conquered: death. No longer will he seek to escape himself through others, he tells himself. He is willing to accept the pain of his life and break the cycle in the only way he sees possible. There are no audible lyrics to this song but in the first 15 seconds there is a faint whisper reapeating "The best thing about life is knowing you put it together." Eraser: is basically a vocalization of the revelations made in a warm place. The violence he directs towards himself is desperate, he needs someone to end his life. He's not yet willing to do this himself, to take that final step in which he will reject, in the only way possible to him at this point, the unacceptable nature on which his life was based. The final step taken on the road to the downward spiral occurs at this stage where he has accepted death but still cannot pull the trigger. Indecision causes him to once again look for another way out. It seems as if the character went to a prostitute, or a woman with the same degree of indifference as one, in order to find some alternative kind of control; one that requires him to give nothing, and yet harms nobody. However, what he finds within her and within himself only serves to utterly disgust him. His description of her in reptile is cold and unflattering, to say the least. Reptile: In the reptile he finds the icy indifference he is fleeing from within himself. She is a liar who will submit to his desires and say what he wants to hear, but means none of it.She is incapable of feeling anything towards him and supplies him with sex as freely as she did for the man before him and will for the man after. When he says, "my disease my infection, i am so impure," he realizes that he is once again being driven by his disease and impurity (his need to control others) and accepts the fact that he has lost all his options. In the midst of the song there is a cut back to the music of a warm place, once again signifying realization. The Downward Spiral: begins with static followed by an acoustic guitar striking the end notes of closer, establishing the link between the two songs, illustrating the way in which his false notions about God, sex and control led him to the events described in the downward spiral. The mechanical side of the character observes the suicide in a detached manner, as if it isn't affected; watches as the gun is now aimed at its wielder just as it was once aimed at another in big man with a gun. The recurring imagery of the gun (a phallic symbol which represented his idea of godlike control through sex) being pointed to someone's head shows that the violent nature of the ruiner he had become is now completely focused upon himself, actually becoming the agent of his demise. But now something has changed. There has been a shift, from "he couldn't believe how easy it was," to "spilling out of my head." The man is doing more than escaping the mechanical voice through suicide more importantly, he is killing it along with him. The man knew that, due to his inability to relinquish his need for control, he had no chance to escape indifference, so he sacrificed his life rather than letting it overcome him, thus unknowingly affirming a solid value, a meaning: Human feeling over nihilistic indifference. The tragedy is that he could only make this affirmation through an act that is essentially nihilistic. Hurt: is the most solitary manifestation of the human voice. In theory this is a triumph, a victory for humanity, but in reality it was too costly. Even though the human side of the man is what somehow survives beyond death, it is still scarred, unfamiliar with anything other than pain. He now reflects on what he has done and regrets it. The purity and unity that he sought in life still hasn't been found. This final "verse" is proof of the character's growth. Tragically, it is after his death that he reaches this point. He boldly affirms his desire to keep his humanity as a value and a meaning that human beings can realize. Hurt is the purest statement of the man's feelings, the most personal song Reznor claims to have written.

Overall Impression — 10
This album has definitely made a great impression on not only me, but many others. As human beings, we must learn to live as human beings and to do without the absolutes we can never obtain. It is time to forget about the absolute freedom that can only be obtained at the expense of others. In order to experience freedom, we must let others be free by allowing them to have what we want for ourselves. Only then can our lives as humans affirm any real value, only then will relationships stop being tyrannical and be based on free and mutual giving as well as receiving. We must find ourselves; learn once again how to care for others as well as ourselves, only then, can we escape nihilism and violence. I cannot compare this album to any other. Trent Reznor has accomplished his career by writing this album; making it pure genius.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Most disturbing and brilliant album from the nineties. So daring and experimental, no hiding, lets get to the case. 100 percent in on all negative emotions, life is not all love songs, rejection, death, religon. Stuff like that, life does not suck, but it CAN suck, and Trent descripes how fuckt and selfdestructive one can REALLY be, i say this bc it descripe my worst days. Mr. Selfdestruct really descripes the epithome of being selfdestructive by few phrases.
    Floydian45 wrote: sadindian88 wrote: What do you guys think of Johnny Cash's cover? I don't really like it. It's good but not as good as Trents'. I read somewhere that Trent himself said in an interview that he prefers Cash's version of Hurt.
    I saw Nine Inch Nails live a while back, and I swear to god, they practically covered Johnny Cash's cover of their own song, it sounded eerily similar. On a side note: TDS is a great ****ing album, but I shall stand by the fact that The Fragile > The Downward Spiral.
    In the chorus of "Ruiner", does anyone love that huge wall of sound as much as I do? Amazing album. I listen to it everyday on the bus to and from school.
    probably one of the best albums to come out of the 90's. Every time I have been listening to this album for 7 years and every time i listen to it i hear something new i enjoy. a real piece of art.