Release Year: 1994
Any NIN fan knows this is an amazing album (and not just because “Closer” is found here). The songs themselves are fantastic and powerful, but it’s the tone and mood of the record that makes it so stellar. This is an album that makes you experience a bevy of emotions in 65 minutes: you go from raging against the world, to hating yourself, to being sexy and sensual and finally being depressed on the verge of a breakdown. It’s probably one of the only albums that’s emotionally draining, but in a good way.
The album begins with the hectic and energetic “Mr. Self Destruct.” Just from this song we see how NIN has moved away from the electronic music that permeated their first release. The music is very harsh and aggressive, which is all found in the opening track. The music is so harsh it sounds like it’s being created by buzz saws and other power tools. It’s awesome how it’s chaotic, but during the middle the music grows clam before it picks up speed again. The sound of the song and some of the lyrics actually reminds me of “Terrible Lie” from Pretty Hate Machine. Either way, it’s a great way to start this intense album and introduces yet another direction for the act.
As mentioned before, all the songs here are absolutely stellar. “Piggy” has a quiet sound with little music and only a tambourine in the beginning while the rest of the music comes in as the song goes on. The lyrics and the unstable percussion at the end manages to sound like someone who is about to breakdown. One of the best tracks here “March of the Pigs,” is the perfect moshing song. It’s freaking fast and energetic that you’ll start bouncing around and destroying shit whenever it comes on (or at least that’s what you’ll want to do). This song has great dynamic because it starts out fast and loud, but by the middle of the chorus a bright piano comes in while Reznor sings “Doesn’t it make you feel better?” It’s as if he’s asking the listener if the soft part makes them feel better before launching back into madness.
Of course the sexy, yet creepy track “Closer” is found here. It’s probably NIN’s most popular song. It’s sexy with a sensual Reznor singing “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” yet it’s still pretty harsh with its beating heart at the beginning and the intense music throughout. Everything about the song makes you drawn to it. Another great track is “Big Man with a Gun.” It has a techno influence, but it’s still pretty brutal. It has such a hard energy; it’s like it’s smacking you in the face. There’s also some clever wordplay here with the lyrics. Reznor mixes references to guns and phalli so much that by the end you don’t what he’s talking about anymore. It’s pretty intentional especially when Reznor sings “I’m gonna come all over you.” It may be short, but it’s a great song about how both guns and genitals (mainly penises) can be used to hurt and have power over others.
The two darkest tracks from the album are “The Downward Spiral” and “Hurt.” The title track begins with whirring sounds that sound like demons whining or dying. Then an acoustic rendition of the ending riff from “Closer” comes in and plays throughout. The song gets really dark as it keeps adding haunting sounds, like heavy breathing before it cuts to a disjointed acoustic riff. But before everything has a chance to clam down muffled screams and guitars are heard while Reznor speaks: “So much blood for such a tiny little hole.” By the end, the song loses it shit completely. It’s a dark song with disturbing and violent lyrics about suicide. It’s one of the best tracks here and definitely one of the most underrated.
“Hurt” really needs no introduction. It’s an infamous song that was once covered by Johnny Cash, who actually made the song even darker. This is probably one of the most depressing songs in the world. The way Reznor sings “I will let you down/I will make you hurt” makes you want to curl up in a ball and rock back and forth for a few hours. Another thing that’s amazing about this track is the music itself. It’s pretty slow for the most part with only a haunting guitar riff, but as the song continues the music grows more and more. At the end it booms unexpectedly that it’ll actually take you by surprise. It’s a really powerful song that can make you cry anytime.
As mentioned before, this release is a step away from the electronic dance music featured on their debut. The music is hard and aggressive, but it’s still not as brutal as Broken. On that release the music was really hard, aggressive, loud and wild. While the music is like that here sometimes, it seems to be mostly about mood and emotion. Rather than sticking with one type of music on The Downward Spiral, Reznor seems to mix both electric and aggressive to create the sound found on this record.
Overall, the album gets 9.5/10. It’s one of the greatest albums of the 90’s with powerful songs that affect you to this day. It’s aggressive, it’s catchy and depressing all wrapped up into one. If you only play attention to the singles here you are really missing out. All the tracks are fantastic, all with the ability to affect your emotions until you feel like you need a big hug by the time you’re finished.