Released: March 8, 1994
While hard to imagine now, there was a brief point in time when Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor’s musical brainchild/alias/moniker) was one of alt-rock’s most prominent bands. And in terms of cultural relevance, the outfit’s apex occurred with their second full-length album, the appropriately titled The Downward Spiral.
The Downward Spiral is every bit the vicarious journey into hedonistic self-destruction that the title suggests, but it also arguably represents Reznor at his creative peak. Having cashed in on the artistic equity afforded by the slow-burn success of his debut (Pretty Hate Machine), Reznor seamlessly juxtaposes his heavily processed, electronica-tinged production with the chaotic, ‘amps-to-eleven’ sound of his well-seasoned live band.
Buoyed by a pair of decade-defining singles (the bondage-themed “Closer” and everybody’s-favorite-song-to-cover, “Hurt”), what sets The Downward Spiral apart from the rest of Reznor’s catalog is the way the album so succinctly realizes it’s overarching theme while remaining an accessible collection of individual songs. There are arguably ‘heavier’ records (With Teeth, Broken), and ‘headier’ records (The Fragile, Year Zero) in the ‘Nails catalog, but it’s difficult to find a more potent artistic statement than The Downward Spiral.
Picking up where the live-band-influenced, aggro-tinged Broken E.P. left off, The Downward Spiral opens with the impressively jarring “Mr. Self Destruct.” The lewd lounge vibe of “Piggy” and the absolutely visceral one-two punch of “Heresy” and “March of the Pigs” represents what is perhaps the band’s most effective opening salvo of songs to date. But the album’s second act, beginning with the touchstone hit “Closer,” is where The Downward Spiral really shines. From there, “Ruiner,” “The Becoming,” and the absolutely punishing “I Do Not Want This” add a muscular, progressive tinge to the album.
A fittingly haphazard sonic assault for the majority of its running time, Reznor provides listeners a tangible sense of closure during the record’s final third. The claustrophobic title track and the primal, evocative “Reptile” place Reznor’s imagery-laced lyrics front and center, while the album-closing “Hurt” remains one of the ’90s most enduring tracks, undoubtedly a ‘someday-soon’ entry into the great American songbook.
Identifying the ‘best’ album from a group as prolific as Nine Inch Nails is an inherently tricky affair—personal bias and subjectivity render it an almost impossible task. Still, the cultural impact of The Downward Spiral cannot be overstated. The album impressively managed to exponentially grow the band’s audience while also satisfying longtime fans.
Whether it’s because they wanted a copy of ‘that song’ they saw on MTV or because it was the crowning achievement from their favorite band, The Downward Spiral represents the moment in time when seemingly ‘everyone’ was listening to Nine Inch Nails.