Friday, March 12, 2010

Albums That Blew My Mind: "The Downward Spiral" by Nine Inch Nails

Like many people in my age range, my first exposure to Nine Inch Nails’ music was the video for “Closer,” (uncensored version here) which even in its censored version was one of the most disturbing music videos I had ever seen. It became kind of infamous during middle school, largely because of beating heart, spinning pig head, the bondage stuff, and of course, the chorus. While I thought it was a cool song (what middle school aged student isn't going to think a song about sex that uses naughty words is cool?), I didn't really pay too much attention to it.

This was the case until the my freshman year of high school (1999, or NIN_eteen NIN_ety NIN_e, as the case could be), when NIN released The Fragile (which will get its own Albums That Blew My Mind post in due time). After seeing the video for "We're In This Together," and picking up a copy of The Fragile, I knew I wanted more Nine Inch Nails. This led to a brief battle over if I could purchase the album (the lyrics to "Big Man With a Gun" did NOT go over well), but I eventually persisted and was able to buy a copy.

Upon first listening, I immediately noticed a feeling of discomfort. I was used to heavy music (although, admittedly at the time, I was big into the rap-rock mix), and even Nine Inch Nails' late 90s sound, but this album was somehow different. It just sounded... unclean. The music itself was just a layered wall of sound that sounded like skin scraping against concrete. The mix was complex and sounded evil . The lyrics dealt with dark topics (addiction to drugs, control through sex, suicide, etc.). This was certainly a different beast than any other album I owned at the time. Even the album art seemed dirty. The pictures were of death and decay. The album was recorded at the house where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family... this thing was certainly not a family friendly record.
So, as a person who doesn't do drugs, isn't depressed, and by all accounts is relatively "normal," why does The Downward Spiral blow my mind, considering the paragraph written above?

I think to a certain extent, a lot of people like delving into the "dark" areas that they normally wouldn't want to go, and The Downward Spiral does a great job serving as a guide into the world of self destruction. There are many who believe the album follows the story of a protagonist who strips away each layer of his addictions, and as he does, he slips further into madness. This is the first half of the album, ending with "Big Man With a Gun." As "A Warm Place" starts and the second half begins, the man decides to kill himself, and after having one last encounter with a whore, shoots himself in the head. As the final track, "Hurt," plays, the protagonist reflects on what has happened as he bleeds out. I find this an interesting take on what is going on because it makes sense following the lyrics and tone of the album, but at the same time is never explicitly stated.One is able to take the album on its surface is they choose to do so, but they can also delve deeper into the meaning if they want to.

I especially love this album because of the amazing musicality in it. Trent Reznor may not be the greatest at playing any of the instruments present on the album, but he is a master at layering sound and dissonance into a fantastic sounding product. One can listen to the songs, and they work, but when one really begins to pay attention to EACH thing going on during the tracks, that is when the songs really begin to shine. There are a surprising number of instruments, samples, and distortions going on at any given time. Because this album is industrial, many of these samples are not true instruments (for example, a gunshot is used as a drum in "Mr. Self Destruct"). To take such chaos, and turn it into a cohesive product is no easy task.

It's hard to say why Nine Inch Nails and The Downward Spiral struck and continues to strike such a strong chord with me. In high school, I can see why the antisocial nature of the songs and the darkness would have appealed to the outsider that I was, but now at 25, I am a completely different person, and yet I still come back to this album on a regular basis (I've bought three copies on CD thus far). I was beyond excited when I found out that The Downward Spiral was played in its entirety on a few of the Wave Goodbye shows. Maybe one day in the future, I'll get the chance to hear it live.
Some songs to check out:
-"Eraser" live in 1995
-"March of the Pigs" music video
-"Hurt" from a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert (Trent lived in NOLA for years)
-"Heresy" live in 2009
-"Mr. Self Destruct" live in 2009 from the final "Wave Goodbye" club shows

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