Music / The Downward Spiral

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The best thing about life is knowing that you put it together.

"You can have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.
"
Nine Inch Nails, "Hurt"

The Downward Spiral is a Concept Album which was released in 1994 by Nine Inch Nails. The band's previous release, Broken, was their first taste of pure industrial aggression and anger, breaking away from the Synth Pop of their debut Pretty Hate Machine. Arguably, this album was the band at their angriest, far angrier than Broken could've ever dreamed to be.

The album was (in)famously recorded in a home studio frontman Trent Reznor had built at 10050 Cielo Drive, dubbed by him as "Le Pig", where the Charles Manson "family" performed the Tate murders in 1969. (He ended up being the house's final resident, as he left at the end of 1993, taking only the front door to install at his new studio, and the house was demolished the year after.)

With this album, Reznor wanted to explore the story of a psychologically wounded character, and that character would serve as an outlet for the songwriting, as Trent was struggling with band conflicts, alcohol and drug addiction, and depression around the time he made the album. Reznor strived to focus on texture and space, avoiding explicit guitar or synthesizer use. The story of the album is brilliantly vague and open to many interpretations, with the most famous being whether or not the protagonist's suicide attempt near the end of the album is successful. You can read one such interpretation here.

The Downward Spiral established Nine Inch Nails as a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s music scene, with the sounds of the album being heavily imitated and the album being seen as one of the 90s' greatest and most important musical works, although Moral Guardians did have quite a mouthful for some of the album's lyrics.

It was listed at nr. #201 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Just over a year after its initial release, The Downward Spiral received a remix album called Further Down the Spiral that contains remixes from Aphex Twin, Rick Rubin, J.G. Thirlwell, and a good portion of Coil, among other high-profile names. It is also reportedly one of the bestselling remix albums of all time.

Tracklist:

  1. "Mr. Self Destruct" (4:30)
  2. "Piggy" (4:24)
  3. "Heresy" (3:54)
  4. "March of the Pigs" (2:58)
  5. "Closer" (6:13)
  6. "Ruiner" (4:58)
  7. "The Becoming" (5:31)
  8. "I Do Not Want This" (5:41)
  9. "Big Man with a Gun" (1:36)
  10. "A Warm Place" (3:22)
  11. "Eraser" (4:54)
  12. "Reptile" (6:51)
  13. "The Downward Spiral" (3:57)
  14. "Hurt" (6:13)

Personnel:

  • Trent Reznor: vocals, all instruments, drums
  • Chris Vrenna: drums, sampling, programming
  • Adrian Belew: texture generating guitar, ring mod guitar
  • Danny Lohner: additional guitar
  • Andy Kubiszewski, Chris Vrenna: drums
  • Stephen Perkins: drum loops
  • Charlie Clouser: programming

March of the Tropes:

  • Animal Motifs: While pigs are the most prominent (i.e. "Piggy," "March of the Pigs," the reference to swine in "Heresy"), other examples include "Reptile," a reference to insects from the aforementioned song, flies and cattle in the rapped sections of "Ruiner," and references to bees (and their honey) in "Closer" and "Reptile."
  • Anti-Hero: The protagonist, who is named "Mr. Self Destruct" in the opening track.
    I take you where you want to go
    I give you all you need to know
    I drag you down I use you up
    Mr. Self-destruct
  • Arc Words: Nothing can stop me now.
    • The references to pigs and some sort of machine also qualify.
  • Badass Boast: From "Ruiner":
    "You didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me, you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now..."
  • Belief Makes You Stupid:
    • "Mr. Self Destruct"
    I speak religion's message clear
    And I control you
    I am denial guilt and fear
    And I control you
    I am the prayers of the naive
    And I control you
    I am the lie that you believe
    And I control you
    • "Heresy"
    He dreamed a god up and called it Christianity
    Your god is dead and no one cares
    If there is a hell I'll see you there
  • Bookends: According to Trent, the album's first "section" is tracks 1-9, and the first and final tracks ("Mr. Self Destruct" and "Big Man with a Gun") of this section are connected; in "Big Man", the protagonist becomes fully corrupted and seemingly irredeemable, the very same thing initially foreshadowed in "Mr. Self Destruct". Additionally, the songs are both at 100 BPM and have similar melodies.
  • Bowdlerise: Probably one of music's most brilliant examples; the "crown of shit" line in "Hurt" was changed in the Johnny Cash cover to "crown of thorns", nodding to Cash's devout following of Christianity.
  • Bungled Suicide: According to some interpretations of the album's ending, this happens.
  • Careful with That Axe: Runs rampant throughout the album.
    • Special note goes to "Eraser", which has Reznor screaming "KILL ME" over and over until it dissolves into the manic instrumentation.
    • The Title Track has muffled sounds of Reznor screaming so loudly that it almost drowns out the Machine's talking.
    • The ending of "Big Man With a Gun" has Reznor outright screeching "ME AND MY FUCKING GUN" over and over.
  • The Corruptible: The "ruiner" (metaphorically) infected by a virus causes a widespread epidemic with an impact so big that the protagonist experiences more life difficulties than ever and many people turn against him for being interrogative and manipulative, which is why he criticizes himself for being the personification of whatever he hates, but...
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: "The Becoming".
  • Darker and Edgier: The whole album to NIN's previous work.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: ...he actually proves himself to be stronger than (and kills) the ruiner.
    • Well, metaphorically, anyways- it's very debatable if the ruiner even actually exists outside the protagonist's mind. And it doesn't last...
  • Downer Ending: Whether or not you believe that he killed himself, the album's conclusion still has him at the bottom of the spiral after his disconnection with everything including himself.
    • Without referencing the album's concept, the album's concluding with "Hurt" is an eligible example.
    What have I become?
    My sweetest friend
    Everyone I know goes away in the end
  • Driven to Suicide: Seems to be played straight in the title track, but it is revealed in "Hurt" that he just injured himself, and that the suicide attempt was a failure...maybe. The ending of the record especially is open to interpretation - "Hurt" is sometimes also seen as being essentially the character's dying moments, or as outside of the story arc altogether.
    • There was a song called "Just Do It" that was originally going to be on the album that is particularly upfront and unapologetically blunt about suicide (the only known lyrics are "Just do it / nobody cares at all"), but producer Flood convinced him to leave it off due to being too grim.
  • Drone of Dread: The sustained, gurgling bass synth in "Reptile".
  • Drugs Are Bad:
    • From "Mr. Self Destruct":
    I am the needle in your vein
    And I control you
    • Also, from "Hurt":
    The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting.
  • Epic Rocking: Five tracks on the album are at least five minutes long, with three of those five being over six minutes long. The longest is "Reptile" at almost seven minutes.
    • Almost every one of the eleven Further Down the Spiral tracks is a minimum of 5 minutes in length, with only two exceptions.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "A Warm Place" into "Eraser", "The Becoming" into "I Do Not Want This", "I Do Not Want This" into "Big Man with a Gun".
    • Some of the songs actually have bits from the previous song at the very, very start. "Piggy" has a bit of "Mr. Self Destruct", and "A Warm Place" has a very loud and abrupt bit that may or may not be from "Big Man with a Gun". These were fixed on the remastered version.
  • God Is Dead: "Heresy" and "Ruiner".
    Your god is dead and no one cares
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: As the album goes on, the protagonist becomes increasingly untrustworthy for himself being the embodiment of all the things he doesn't like.
  • "I Am" Song: "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Big Man with a Gun" are both songs with the protagonist basking quite amorously in their character.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: "Big Man With a Gun" begins with a distorted, warbling female scream of pleasure.
  • Intercourse with You:
    • In "Reptile" he is to have someone else who feels nothing at all emotionally, but sexually tortures him instead.
    • It is widely rumored that in "Closer" he feels closer to God by doing this through helpless victims to escape his former life. Reznor in interviews denied that "Closer" was about sex and instead suggested it to be an Anti-Love Song.
    I want to fuck you like an animal
    I want to feel you from the inside
    I want to fuck you like an animal
    My whole existence is flawed
    You get me closer to God
    Through every forest, above the trees
    Within my stomach, scraped off my knees
    I drink the honey inside your hive
    You are the reason I stay alive
  • Jump Scare:
    • As a result of Fading into the Next Song, "A Warm Place" has a very loud bit that may or may not be from "Big Man with a Gun" (the previous track) at the very start of the song.
    • The ending of "Hurt"; up until the final sung line, the song has been generally miles calmer and slower than the tracks preceding it. However, once Trent gets to the final line ("I would find a way"), a set of loud guitar notes blares in suddenly.
    • When "March of the Pigs" rather suddenly continues playing after a prolonged period of silence.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Mr. Self Destruct" and, to an even more harrowing degree, "Hurt."
    • "A Warm Place" is a Beginning Note Nightmare if you play the song on repeat. See Jump Scare above.
  • Lighter and Softer: "A Warm Place" and "Hurt"note .
  • Madness Mantra:
    • The repeated screams of "me and my fucking gun" at the end of "Big Man With a Gun".
    • "Eraser" ends with Trent repeatedly shouting "Kill me".
  • Misogyny Song:
    • "Big Man with a Gun" is a Stealth Parody which unfortunately earned a rather large Misaimed Fandom.
    • "Closer" is a very famous example that was similarly misinterpreted.
  • Mood Dissonance: "The Becoming" and "A Warm Place".
  • Mood Whiplash: The hard mechanical opening of "Mr. Self Destruct" is followed by the slow and softer "Piggy".
    • Which follows the God ranting of "Heresy" and then the rapid fire of "March of the Pigs".
    • Which is followed by the slow beats of "Closer" which follows the phallic take down of God in "Ruiner".
    • Which is followed by the self take down of himself in "The Becoming" and "I Do Not Want This".
    • Which is followed by the snap in sanity and the hard "Big Man With A Gun" followed by the calming instrumental "A Warm Place".
    • Followed by the torturing cries of "Eraser" to the pulse wrenching "Reptile".
    • To the attempted end of his life in "The Downward Spiral" to the dark and tear-jerking ending of "Hurt."
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The first "doesn't it make you feel better?" piano section of "March of the Pigs" is followed by a good portion of silence before the song suddenly continues.
    • "A Warm Place" manages to be soothing yet unnerving at the same time for this exact reason.
  • One Man Song: "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Big Man With A Gun".
  • The Oner: The single-take Performance Video of "March of the Pigs".
  • One-Word Title: "Piggy", "Heresy", "Closer", "Ruiner", "Eraser", "Reptile" and "Hurt".
  • Performance Video: "March of the Pigs".
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "Closer" gave us one of the most iconic lines in music history: "I wanna fuck you like an animal."
    • "Hurt" has "I wear this crown of shit", which was changed quite wisely into "I wear this crown of thorns" in the Johnny Cash cover, referencing Jesus and Cash's dedicated Christianity.
    • "March of the Pigs": "I wanna break it up / I wanna smash it up / I wanna fuck it up."
    • "I Do Not Want This": "I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to fuck everyone in the world"
  • Rape as Drama: A common interpretation of "Big Man With a Gun", with the Freudian overtones of the titular gun in question.
  • Record Producer: Trent Reznor and Mark "Flood" Ellis.
  • Recurring Riff: The famous "Downward Spiral motif", which appears in "Piggy", "Heresy", "Closer", and "The Downward Spiral", as well as a certain version of "Eraser" only played on the Dissonance Tour.
  • Sampling:
    • The album begins with a sample from THX 1138 of the sound of a man being beaten.
    • The kick drum sound of "Closer" is a sample of the song "Nightclubbing" from Iggy Pop's album The Idiot.
    • The screams in the background of "The Becoming" are taken from Robot Jox.
    • There's also the porn star sample on "Big Man With A Gun", distorted and processed to the point of being unrecognizable. The liner notes call the sample "Steakhouse".
    • "Reptile" takes its opening machinery sounds from Leviathan, and the looping female voice in the bridge is from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974.
    • The Title Track's beginning watery noise is from Alien.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: The whole album.
  • Sensory Abuse: The vocals and musical instruments are distorted to the point of harshness.
    • Also, the end of "Mr. Self Destruct", with its distorted guitar texture (which sounds looped).
  • Stalker with a Crush: In "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Closer", the protagonist had a girlfriend while he was already notorious for his often disrespectful behavior toward people that he disliked. His flaws led to his girlfriend abandoning him.
  • Subdued Section: "Mr. Self Destruct", "March of the Pigs", "Heresy", "Ruiner", "I Do Not Want This", "Eraser", and "Reptile" all have this dynamic.
  • Take That: Reznor has said that "Big Man With a Gun" was written as making fun of "the whole misogynistic Gangsta Rap bullshit".
    • "Heresy" contains mocking references to right-wing Christians who blame HIV/AIDS on people's alleged sexual immorality, an attitude which Reznor finds to be utterly reprehensible.
  • Tempting Fate: "Nothing can stop me now", basically whenever it's used, but especially in "Piggy" and "Ruiner". In the latter, the phrase is cut off after "stop" and the next song, "The Becoming", begins.
  • Textless Album Cover: Some versions of the album cover, like the one on The Other Wiki's page for this album.
  • Title Track: "The Downward Spiral," though the title isn't mentioned in the lyrics themselves.
  • Uncommon Time:
    • "March of the Pigs" has three bars of 7/8 time and one bar of 8/8 time (except in the chorus).
    • Most of "The Becoming" has a bar of 7/4 followed by a bar of 6/4.
  • What Have I Become?: Mentioned word for word in "Hurt."
    What have I become?
    My sweetest friend, everyone I know
    Goes away in the end
  • Yandere: The protagonist of the album is a male example of this trope, as demonstrated in "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Closer".
    • "Reptile" has a female example.

The pigs have won tonight
Now they can all sleep soundly and
Everything is alright.

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