Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)
So I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m fond of NIN’s 1992 EP Broken. About half of The Downward Spiral is in a similar vein, but it’s a more ambitious and varied work by far. Longer albums tend to do that; we’ve been over this many times in the past. This was arguably Trent Reznor’s big commercial breakthrough – the Black Album to Broken‘s And Justice For All, if you like extended Metallica analogies, since to be fair, the previous EP did sell quite well in its own right. What do we make of it?
Well, first of all, The Downward Spiral mostly resembles its predecessor in its most intense moments. The same mixture of pop songwriting with abrasive guitars and sampling is on display here, but it only takes us until the second track (“Piggy”) to learn of TDS‘s other ambitions. Interspersed with the stereotypical industrial metal sound are a couple of downtempo, and occasionally ambient tracks that are… less directly tailored to my interests, regardless of their merits/lack thereof. We might as well be honest about it – by ratios alone, this album panders less to me than the last one, but other listeners might appreciate the quieter moments and generally wider songwriting scope. To be fair, Trent doesn’t spend all that much time in interlude mode, but it’s still at least 25-30% of the album, so regardless of your opinion, it bears mentioning. The underlying electronic ideas remain.
If there’s one thing that’s definitely changed in the intervening two years, it’s the textures. The Downward Spiral is a more spacious album than its predecessor, with less instruments competing for the listener’s attention and the quieter sections being understandably sparser sounding. It also helps that the album features some very slow, almost doomy tracks. My knowledge of Nine Inch Nails’ discography is far from encyclopedic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was new territory for the act, and the occasional slow, trudging, but still rock/metal oriented track is a welcome change, and certainly a viable way of adding more variety to the hour long degradation trip that is this album. I guess I pay more attention to the lyrics of this album than its predecessor, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re not really the selling point. I’ve seen Trent’s lyrical approach criticized in the past, but given that I tend to deemphasize lyrics as part of my own listening experience (with some major exceptions), it’s not something I lose sleep over.
Ultimately, I think The Downward Spiral is a sidestep from Broken; it’s recognizably in the same genre, but the overall effect is quite different. One definite good that came of this album was that Trent got to practice his dark ambient skills, which definitely came in handy once id Software contracted him to score Quake. That game’s OST might be worth an Anatomy of VGM post someday, but until then…
Highlights: “Heretic”, “Closer”, “Reptile”