- "You can have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt."—"Hurt"
The Downward Spiral, released in 1994, is the second album by American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails and their first full work following their genre shift from dark Synth-Pop to even darker industrial with the Broken EP.
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 Concept Album, Reznor wanted sonically to diverge from Broken and thematically to explore the story of a psychologically wounded character that would serve as an outlet for the songwriting, as Trent was struggling with band conflicts, alcoholism, 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 dies from his suicide attempt near the end of the album. 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 greatest and most important musical works of the decade, although Moral Guardians did have quite a mouthful for some of the album's lyrics.
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.
- "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)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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."
- 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:
I speak religion's message clearAnd I control youI am denial, guilt, and fearAnd I control youI am the prayers of the naiveAnd I control youI am the lie that you believeAnd I control you
- "Mr. Self Destruct"
He dreamed a god up and called it ChristianityYour god is dead and no one caresIf there is a hell I'll see you there
- Big "NO!": Heard several times in the Title Track.
- Black Comedy:
- This is the furthest thing from a humorous album, but the cheerful Mood Whiplash in "March of the Pigs" is somewhat funny.
- Similarly, there's how the protagonist has to reassure himself that he is a "big man" in "Big Man With a Gun".
- Book-Ends: 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, the protagonist's suicide attempt is unsuccessful.
- 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.
- Creepy Monotone: The Machine, as portrayed by Trent with a chillingly subdued and flat speaking tone.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: "The Becoming".
- 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 a brilliant set of 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 with everything including himself. The only light at the end of the tunnel that the album provides is in "Hurt" and is extremely bittersweet, where the protagonist realizes the errors of his ways and wishes that he could start over.
What have I become?My sweetest friendEveryone I know goes away in the endAnd you can have it allMy empire of dirtI will let you downI will make you hurt.
- Without referencing the album's concept, the album's concluding 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 in the title track, but 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:
I am the needle in your veinAnd I control you
- From "Mr. Self Destruct":
The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting.
- Also, from "Hurt":
- 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.
- Eleven O'Clock Number: "Reptile" acts as this, being the moment where the protagonist fully realizes he's hit rock bottom as the only emotional solace he can find is within a prostitute, and is the final track we hear before the protagonist's suicide attempt.
- Epic Rocking: "Closer", "Reptile", and "Hurt"
- 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", "The Downward Spiral" into "Hurt".
- 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 from "Big Man with a Gun". These were fixed on the remastered version.
- God Is Dead: "Heresy" and "Ruiner". In the former, he rants against Christianity and religion as a whole, and in the latter, he kills God himself.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.
- 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 their character.
- The Immodest Orgasm: "Big Man With a Gun" begins with a distorted, warbling female scream of pleasure.
- Instrumental: "A Warm Place".
- Intercourse with You:
I want to fuck you like an animalI want to feel you from the insideI want to fuck you like an animalMy whole existence is flawedYou get me closer to GodThrough every forest, above the treesWithin my stomach, scraped off my kneesI drink the honey inside your hiveYou are the reason I stay alive
- 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.
- Jump Scare:
- 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"; 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.
- The intro of "The Downward Spiral (The Bottom)" from "Further Down The Spiral" remix album ends with Trent Reznor's infamous scream accompanied with loud guitar noise blaring in the background.
- Last Note Nightmare:
- "Mr. Self Destruct" ends with a bunch of guitars playing different melodies at once, creating dissonant noise.
- "A Warm Place" inverts this trope if you play the song on repeat (see Jump Scare above) and also plays it 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:
- Mood Dissonance: "The Becoming" and "A Warm Place".
- 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 seen 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 solely-auditory example following the (possibly sexually) violent power trip of "Big Man with a Gun".
- The final track, "Hurt" also counts as this, though, 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".
- 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 cleverly 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."
- "The Downward Spiral": "Problems do have solutions, you know / A lifetime of fucking things up fixed / In one determined flash."
- 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.
- 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" again.
- 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 crowd screaming 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.
- 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.
- Spoken Word in Music: Whenever Trent assumes the role of the Machine, he speaks almost-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.
- 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.
- 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 chorus).
- Most of "The Becoming" has a bar of 7/4 followed by a bar of 6/4.
- 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 friend, everyone I knowGoes 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.