My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt."
The Downward Spiral, released in March 8, 1994, is the second studio album by American rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the band's first full work following their shift from a dark, mechanical take on synthpop and alternative dance (the debut Pretty Hate Machine) to a harsher, angrier industrial metal sound (the Broken EP).
The album was (in)famously recorded in a home studio that 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.note
Built as a Concept Album and heavily inspired by David Bowie's 1977 album Low, Reznor wanted The Downward Spiral both to distinguish its sound from Broken and tell the story of a psychologically wounded character on a path towards complete nihilism, misanthropy, and self-destruction. This character was based heavily on himself, as he was struggling with band conflicts, alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression around the time he made the album.
While working on the album, Reznor strived to focus on texture and space, avoiding explicit guitar or synthesizer use. He also strove to make certain parts of the album's story ambiguous, which has made it ripe for interpretation and analysis to this day. You can read one such interpretation here.
The Downward Spiral established Nine Inch Nails as a force in the 1990s music scene, its sounds heavily imitated and the album ultimately being seen as one of the most important musical works of the decade, although Moral Guardians did have quite a mouthful for some of the album's lyrics.
While touring for the album, Reznor ended up befriending its lead inspiration, David Bowie, who just so happened to be promoting his Rock Opera Outside, itself inspired by the industrial stylings of Nine Inch Nails. Bowie and Reznor combined their live shows together by making Nine Inch Nails' Dissonance tour the opening act for the American leg of Bowie's Outside tour, featuring Bowie and Reznor duetting on one-another's songs. Reznor would also provide remixes for Bowie's singles "The Hearts Filthy Lesson" and "I'm Afraid of Americans", co-starring in the latter's music video. Reznor would later cite this friendship as an influence in his eventual sobriety and Creator Recovery.
Just over a year after its initial release, The Downward Spiral received a remix album titled 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's reportedly one of the best-selling remix albums of all time. The album later received a 10th anniversary remaster in 2004, with both a standard edition and a deluxe edition that features a bonus discs with b-sides, remixes and soundtracks that the band made for films.
- "Mr. Self Destruct" (4:30)
- "Piggy" (4:24)
- "Heresy" (3:54)
- "March of the Pigs" (2:58)
- "Closer" (6:13)
- "Ruiner" (4:58)
- "The Becoming" (5:31)
- "I Do Not Want This" (5:41)
- "Big Man with a Gun" (1:36)
- "A Warm Place" (3:22)
- "Eraser" (4:54)
- "Reptile" (6:51)
- "The Downward Spiral" (3:57)
- "Hurt" (6:13)
- "A Violet Fluid" (1:05)note
- 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
I wanna trope you like an animal.
- 13 Is Unlucky: The Title Track is (literally) the 13th track of the album and also the part of the main protagonist's attempted suicide.
- Alas, Poor Villain: By the time the album is over, you can't help but feel sorry for the Villain Protagonist of the album. Despite all that he's done, he's come to realize the consequences for his actions far outweigh any pleasure he received from them.
- Ambiguous Ending: Did the protagonist survive his suicide attempt? While "The Downward Spiral" states that he literally shot himself in the head, there have been cases of people surviving such shots before. Plus, "Hurt" and the following NIN albums The Fragile and Hesitation Marks are often interpreted as continuations of the album's story.
- 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-Villain: The protagonist is a prime example of a Type 2 anti-villain.
- Arc Words:
- "Nothing can stop me now", used throughout the album in contexts of self-empowerment, mania, self-aware descents into madness, or arguably a mix of the three.
- 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!
- "Mr. Self Destruct":
- Black Comedy:
- This is the furthest thing from a humorous album, but the cheerful instances of Mood Whiplash in "March of the Pigs" are somewhat funny due to how purely out of left field they are.
- Despite being one of the most horrific tracks on the album, "Big Man With A Gun" was written first and foremost as a satire of toxic masculinity and misogyny in gangsta rap, and as it's deliberately mocking that mindset, it can make for some very, very dark amusement.I AM A BIG MAN (YES I AM) AND I'VE GOT A BIG GUN
- "GOD IS DEAD! AND NO ONE CARES!" from "Heresy".
- 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 with a Gun", the protagonist becomes fully corrupted and seemingly irredeemable, the very same thing initially foreshadowed in "Mr. Self Destruct". Additionally, the songs are both at 200 BPM and have similar melodies.
- Bowdlerise: Probably one of music's most tasteful examples; the "crown of shit" line in "Hurt" was changed in Johnny Cash's cover of the song to "crown of thorns", nodding to Cash's devout Christianity.
- Bungled Suicide: According to some interpretations of the album's ending, the protagonist doesn't die from his suicide attempt but still injures himself in the process, taking "Hurt" as an indication for this.
- Careful with That Axe:
- "Eraser" ends with Reznor screaming "KILL ME" over and over until it dissolves into the noisy background.
- The ending of "Big Man with a Gun" has Reznor outright screeching "ME AND MY FUCKING GUN" over and over.
- The Title Track has muffled sounds of Reznor screaming so loudly that it almost drowns out the Machine's talking.
- Creepy Monotone: The Machine, as portrayed by Trent with a chillingly subdued and flat-speaking tone.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: In a symbolic sense; the protagonist's gradual dissociation throughout the album is personified as him losing his humanity to the Machine. "The Becoming" most explicitly details this and even likens his loss of feeling to his body being replaced by machinery.
- Darker and Edgier: Easily the darkest album, lyrically and sonically, that the band had put out at the time, if ever.
- Double Entendre: "Big Man with a Gun" is rife with these, considering its view of the "gun" in question shuffles between an actual gun (insinuating a killing spree) and a penis (insinuating a rape). Throw in some double meanings on words such as "shoot"note , and you have a song that could genuinely go either way.
- Downer Ending:
- Whether or not you believe that the protagonist killed himself, the album's conclusion still has the protagonist at the bottom of the spiral after his disconnection from everything including himself. The only light at the end of the tunnel that the album provides is in retrospect, as the protagonist realizes the errors of his ways in "Hurt" but states that it's too late to start over.
- Without referencing the album's concept, the album's conclusion with "Hurt" is an eligible example, as the song is told from the perspective of someone lamenting the emptiness of their life and acknowledging that they will leave no legacy behind.
- Driven to Suicide:
- Maybe. Seems to be played straight with the protagonist in the title track, but the album's ending is especially 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 Cut Song from the album titled "Just Do It", which is particularly upfront and unapologetically blunt about suicide (the only known lyrics are "Just do it / nobody cares at all"). Producer Flood convinced Trent to leave it off due to it being too grim, and it's possible that it wasn't even recorded at all.
- Drone of Dread:
- The sustained, gurgling bass synth in "Reptile".
- The watery, droning noise in the Title Track.
- 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.
- From "Mr. Self Destruct":
- Echoing Acoustics: In the second half of the chorus of "Hurt", a distant duplicate of Trent's vocals panned to the side begins singing one quarter-bar before the main vocals.
- The Eleven O'Clock Number: "Reptile" acts as this, being the moment where the protagonist fully realizes he's hit rock bottom as the only solace he can find is within the toxic connection he shares with a prostitute. It's the final track we hear before his suicide attempt.
- Epic Rocking: "Closer", "Reptile", and "Hurt"
- Fading into the Next Song: "A Warm Place" ends with the blowing sounds that open "Eraser", "The Becoming" crossfades into "I Do Not Want This", "I Do Not Want This" in turn segues into "Big Man with a Gun", and "The Downward Spiral" ends with the white noise heard throughout "Hurt".
- Some of the songs on the original version 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 from "Big Man with a Gun". These were fixed on the remaster.
- Fate Worse than Death: Heavily implied to be the case for the protagonist's entire existence. At the end of "Eraser" you can faintly hear him screaming "Help me".
- God is Dead: "Heresy" and "Ruiner". In the former, the protagonist rants against Christianity and religion as a whole, and in the latter, he kills God himself.Your god is dead, and no one cares!
If there is a hell, I'll see you there!
- Going Postal: A possible interpretation for "Big Man with a Gun" (see Double Entendre above).
- 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.
- Hope Spot: "A Warm Place" acts as a moment of clarity for the protagonist following whatever horrific act he committed in "Big Man with a Gun", and possibly hints that he will turn things around...but we find that the damage he's done is truly irreversible as the song segues into "Eraser", which is where the Machine finally consumes the protagonist.
- "I Am" Song: "Mr. Self Destruct" and "Big Man with a Gun" are both songs with the protagonist basking quite amorously in his depraved character.
- "I Am Becoming" Song: Naturally, "The Becoming", centered around the beginning of the protagonist's identity being consumed by the Machine.
- The Immodest Orgasm: "Big Man with a Gun" begins with a distorted, warbling female scream of pleasure.
- Instrumental: "A Warm Place". Technically subverted, as you can very, very dimly hear a voice saying something around the start of the songnote .
- Intercourse with You: Very, very dark examples, as per the tone of the album.
- It is widely rumored that in "Closer", the protagonist feels closer to God by doing this through helpless victims to escape his former life. Reznor denied that "Closer" was about sex in interviews and instead suggested it to be an Anti-Love Song.
- In "Reptile", he is to have someone else who feels nothing at all emotionally, but sexually tortures him instead.
- Isn't It Ironic?: All of the sex-based songs on the album, some of them undeniably sensual in sound, contain lyrics detailing how the sex in question is achieving an incredibly toxic goal for the protagonist, and ultimately amounts to another step down the spiral for him. Especially egregious is how "Closer", in essence a dark deconstruction of Sex for Solace, has a legacy of being one of the sexiest songs ever made.
- Jump Scare:
- When "March of the Pigs" rather suddenly continues playing after a prolonged period of silence.
- On the original album, "A Warm Place" has a very loud split-second of audio leftover from "Big Man with a Gun" (the previous track) at the very start of the song. This was fixed on later editions.
- The ending of "Hurt"; most of the song is generally miles calmer and slower than the tracks preceding it (while still undeniably bleak in tone and atmosphere). However, once Trent gets to the final line ("I would find a way"), a set of loud guitar notes blares in suddenly.
- Last Note Nightmare:
- "Mr. Self Destruct" ends with a bunch of guitars playing different melodies at once, creating dissonant noise.
- The original version of "A Warm Place" inverted this trope if you played the song on repeat (see Jump Scare above), but the song also plays this trope straight with its ending moments. Not only does its melody shift into a darker key, but it also concludes with the uneasy blowing sounds that start "Eraser", tainting the otherwise calm atmosphere.
- The Title Track ends with a harsh, distorted cymbal noise that fades into "Hurt".
- "Hurt" ends with a sudden blast of guitar noise that nearly drowns out the final line and then carries out for over a minute before fading into the background.
- Leitmotif: A particular chromatic melody, often called the "Downward Spiral motif", recurs throughout the album, appearing in "Piggy", "Heresy", "Closer", and the Title Track. "A Warm Place" also uses it, but inverted.
- Lighter and Softer: "A Warm Place" and "Hurt"—at least, until the endings.
- Madness Mantra: Used frequently throughout.
- "Mr. Self Destruct": "You let me do this to you (I am the exit)". Said a total of 8 times.
- The outro of "Ruiner" has "you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now" repeated, although it's clear that the protagonist is just lying to himself.
- At the end of "The Becoming": "it won't give up, it wants me dead, goddamn this noise inside my head" is shrieked over and over again.
- "I Do Not Want This" has three: "I do not want this", "Don't you tell me how I feel", and "I want to know everything/I want to be everywhere/I want to fuck everyone in the world/I want to do something that matters".
- 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". The same thing is heard in "Erased, Over, Out" from the remix album.
- Misogyny Song: "Big Man with a Gun" and "Closer" are both stealth parodies of these particular types of song, which unfortunately got severely misinterpreted.
- Mood Whiplash:
- Across the whole album:
- The hard, mechanical opening of "Mr. Self Destruct" is followed by the slow and softer "Piggy".
- The violent snap in sanity heard in "Big Man with a Gun" is followed by the calming instrumental "A Warm Place", which is in turn followed by the torturing cries of "Eraser".
- The threatening, pulsating chorus of "March of the Pigs" is abruptly stopped by some rather lively piano with Trent singing jovially over it to the effect that it's the closest the album gets to sounding like a jingle.
- Across the whole album:
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- "A Warm Place" is a rare audio-only example following the (possibly sexually) violent power trip of "Big Man with a Gun", as it represents the place of respite that the protagonist's mind retreats to following the events.
- The final track, "Hurt" also counts as this, though it's mainly of the What Have I Become? variant.
- No Ending: "Ruiner" ends abruptly (mid-phrase, no less; as Trent is saying "nothing can stop me now", the last word before the song cuts is "stop"), as does "Big Man with a Gun".
- No Name Given: The protagonist has no official name, only giving himself the nickname "Mr. Self Destruct" in the opening song.
- 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.
- We never get an exact idea of who, what and where the narrator is, only his general thought process. Because of this, we never learn specifically what he does in "Big Man With A Gun", but the violent ramblings and samples of pornography imply something horrific.
- "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-shot Performance Video of "March of the Pigs", reportedly the only take out of a dozen that "did not suck."
- One-Word Title: "Piggy", "Heresy", "Closer", "Ruiner", "Eraser", "Reptile" and "Hurt".
- Performance Video: "March of the Pigs" was given one, notably shot in one take.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: "Big Man With A Gun" demonstrates the protagonist to be quite a misogynist.
- Precision F-Strike:
- "March of the Pigs": "I wanna break it up / I wanna smash it up / I wanna fuck it up."
- "Closer" gives us one of the most iconic lines in music history: "I wanna fuck you like an animal."
- "I Do Not Want This": "I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to fuck everyone in the world."
- "The Downward Spiral": "Problems do have solutions, you know / A lifetime of fucking things up fixed / In one determined flash."
- "Hurt" has "I wear this crown of shit", which was changed quite cleverly into "I wear this crown of thorns" in the Johnny Cash cover, referencing Cash's devout Christianity.
- Rage Against the Heavens: "Heresy" and "Ruiner" have the protagonist violently disillusioning himself from God — the former, especially.
- Rape as Drama: A common interpretation of "Big Man with a Gun", with the Freudian overtones of the titular gun in question.
- "Ray of Hope" Ending: The very last passage of "Hurt" could be understood as one, if you don't take it as the protagonist meaning that he'll just manage to ruin his life and others'. Some who see The Fragile as a continuation of the album may interpret this as taking place directly before The Fragile begins.If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.
- 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.
- Religion Rant Song: "Heresy" and "Ruiner".
- Retraux: The music video for "Closer" was built around the image of a depraved 19th century scientist's laboratory, something reflected not only in the set design, but also the use of "slightly out of date" film stock to give the visuals a grainy, vintage appearance. The TV edit goes a step further, replacing more objectionable shots with "scene missing" cards and censoring instances of the word "fuck" by making the footage itself stutter, giving the impression that the music video was reconstructed from degraded surviving clips.
- "Mr. Self Destruct" begins with a sampled clip from THX 1138, that of a man being beaten, which increases in tempo until it matches the song proper.
- The kick drum sound of "Closer" is a sample of the song "Nightclubbing" from Iggy Pop's album The Idiot, whose producer, David Bowie, was a major influence on The Downward Spiral as a whole.
- The crowd screaming in the background of "The Becoming" is 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 (1989), 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.
- Sadist: Played for Drama, as the protagonist has an extreme obsession with inflicting pain on others in order to make up for their own personal insecurities and fears, as demonstrated in "Closer".
- Sanity Slippage Song: The whole album.
- Sensory Abuse: The vocals and instrumentation are often distorted to the point of harshness. Specific moments include:
- Sex for Solace: Deconstructed, and ruthlessly so at that; "Closer" shows how unhealthy this mindset is, and just how demented a person would have to be, emotionally, to adopt it.
- Special Guest: King Crimson frontman Adrian Belew plays guitar parts throughout the album; Trent Reznor credited Belew's work with restoring his sense of confidence in the instrument as a tool for artistic and emotional expression.
- Spoken Word in Music: Whenever Trent assumes the role of the Machine, he speaks quasi-seductively and so softly that his words are almost drowned out by the music. This occurs in "I Do Not Want This" and the Title Track.
- Sociopathic Hero: The protagonist of the album is characterized by a total disregard for the well-being of others, and even his own, eventually culminating in what might have been a mass shooting or a rape. Although towards the end, just how much of a sociopath he really is is called into question, when he begins to develop a conscience and feel regret for his actions, leading to a suicide attempt that assuming he survived only results in him shamefully coming to believe that the sole purpose in his life is to hurt others.
- 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 to make fun of "the whole misogynistic Gangsta Rap bullshit".
- "Heresy" contains mocking references to right-wing Christians who blamed HIV/AIDS on people's alleged sexual immorality, an attitude which Reznor found 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.
- That Man Is Dead: In "The Becoming", the narrator phrases his loss of the ability to feel like a dissociation from the person he used to be.The me that you know, he had some second thoughts
He's covered with scabs, he is broken and sore
The me that you know, he doesn't come around much
That part of me isn't here anymore.
- 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 normal-time chorus).
- Most of "The Becoming" has a bar of 7/4 followed by a bar of 6/4, and its bridge is in 6/8.
- Villainous BSoD: After the protagonist's Sanity Slippage is complete and he commits whatever horrible act he did in "Big Man With a Gun", he begins to realize that his depravity has reached its peak and makes one last attempt to find some solace in his miserable existence. He ultimately fails in doing so, and shoots himself. Assuming he survived, he's now gone past the Despair Event Horizon, as best demonstrated in "Hurt".
- Villain Protagonist: The album's main character, who is named "Mr. Self Destruct" in the opening track.I take you where you want to goI give you all you need to knowI drag you down, I use you upMr. Self-destruct
- What Have I Become?: Mentioned word for word in "Hurt" and also the Trope Namer.What have I become?My sweetest friendEveryone I knowGoes away in the end
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Despite his moral reprehensibility and delusions of grandeur, the protagonist clearly has a lot of deep-seated mental issues, and by the end, he becomes pitiful in his regret-fueled despair.
- 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.
- You Keep Telling Yourself That:
- In "Big Man With A Gun", the protagonist has to reassure himself that he's a "big man" before he does something unspeakable.
- The Arc Words are also an example: "Nothing can stop me now." By the end, the protagonist makes an attempt on his own life. If he didn't succeed, then he was left broken.
Now they can all sleep soundly,
and everything is alright.