This re-evaluation of The Downward Spiral was written for a 2006 Metal Hammer special on 90s music. This is, for me, an album that’s every bit as important as Highway 61 Revisited, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Bitches Brew, Master Of Reality, For Your Pleasure, Low, Closer, The Correct Use Of Soap and just about any other undisputed classics you care to mention.
In 1997, Trent Reznor was named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people, sharing the honor with the cartoon character Dilbert and then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. He was called “the anti-Bon Jovi” by Time. His “vulnerable vocals and accessible lyrics led an Industrial revolution: He gave the gloomy genre a human heart…Reznor’s music is filthy, brutish stuff, oozing with aberrant sex, suicidal melancholy and violent misanthropy. But to the depressed, his music … proffers pop’s perpetual message of hope: There is worse pain in the world than yours. It is a lesson as old as Robert Johnson‘s blues.”
Reznor was the latest in a long line of brooding, dark romantic figures that included David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He was also an overlooked recording genius, a studio nerd who pioneered a polished, aggressive hard rock sound that is still ubiquitous today.
He seemed an unlikely icon before and an even less credible one today. He’s still a figure of some importance and influence, yet the idea that he was perceived as the spokesman for generation x now seems faintly ludicrous.
Perhaps this is because he is now perceived as the Svengali behind Marilyn Manson, the puppet master who lost control of his creation. And for all his spikiness and the threat to the American way of life that he represents, Manson is more easily digested on MTV than Reznor ever was.
Throughout the 90s Reznor transcended genres and tribes: he appealed to goths because of his emaciated, pale demeanour; he appealed to fledgeling nu metalheads who loved the abrasive guitars and in your face beats; he appealed to ‘cyberpunk’ types who read Wired because it seemed that he seemed to be orchestrating the bleak future world of frazzled tech depicted by William Gibson in Neuromancer. Before the rise of his protégé Marilyn Manson,he was the USA’s most popular nihilist. This reputation rested largely on his masterpiece, the sprawling black hole of despair that was The Downward Spiral.
Even today you can listen to The Downward Spiral and still discover things that you had never heard before. It’s almost as if the album has kept on growing and changing, updating itself between plays.
The first Nine Inch Nails album Pretty Hate Machine, recorded in 1988, was essentially an electronic work heavily influenced by Skinny Puppy, Ministry and Depeche Mode, with Reznor as one man band, creating all the songs and sounds in the studio. The abrasive follow up (of sorts) Broken introduced distorted guitars and a hard rock sensibility. These largely appealed to a cult market, the still-thriving industrial underground. But by the time he made The Downward Spiral in 1994, the ‘mainstream’ of hard rock – under the influence of everyone from Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana to post-‘black album’ Metallica – was moving towards where Trent Reznor had already staked out his territory.
In 1992 Reznor moved to Los Angeles. He had just signed a deal with Interscope that gave him the artistic freedom that he needed to work on his third album. He wanted a property where he could set up his own recording studio.
The Downward Spiral was one of the first albums to be recorded entirely using state of the art digital technology whereby sounds were recorded and stored on a computer hard drive rather than on magnetic tape. They could then be digitally altered – adding effects, reverb or taking such effects off and cleaning the sound up where necessary – rather than just putting the band in the studio, recording the instruments and mixing it together.
The beauty of digital recording is that it can really be done anywhere. The location Trent wanted had to be sufficiently isolated but large enough to accommodate the gear and any collaborators like producer Flood and his main collaborator/assistant drummer Chris Vrenna, whose job was to sift through hundreds of videos for samples to be used on the album. He found a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, a ranch style bungalow on Cielo Drive. It’s a beautiful, picturesque location, set in the real super-rich Los Angeles populated by movie executives, actresses and musicians. The house he rented at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills had had some famous tenants in the past, most notably maverick Polish film director Roman Polanski his beautiful young wife actress Sharon Tate.
One sultry night in August 1969 while the heavily pregnant Sharon and her friends were turning in for the night, a group of hippies broke in. In the space of an hour Sharon watched as her friends Abagail Folger, Jay Sebring and Voytek Frykowski were slaughtered in front of her. Then they killed Sharon, ripping the unborn baby boy from her womb. She was alive to see this. They wrote in her blood the words ‘Pig’ and ‘Healter Skelter’ (sic) on the walls and on the door.
Trent had moved into the house made famous by the so-called Manson murders.
“It’s a coincidence,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “When I found out what it was, it was even cooler.”
Later, he admitted that he had in fact deliberately chosen the location for the bad vibes but regretted this after a meeting with Sharon Tate’s sister Doris.
At the time they were recording in the house, Vrenna and Reznor nicknamed the studio ‘le pig’, alluding to the word ‘pig’ scrawled on the wall in Sharon Tate’s blood by killer Susan Atkins. One of the strongest tracks on the album was also March Of The Pigs, though Reznor denied that there was any connection between this and Charles Manson.
Reznor had been listening to a lot of David Bowie and the influence of Hunky Dory, the 1971 album where he attempted to redefine the way that pop songs were written, had percolated through. Bowie had tried to break away from the traditional verse/chorus/middle eighth/repeat structure of songwriting on that album, something that greatly appealed to Reznor.
While The Downward Spiral was not planned as a concept album, there are linking themes and recurring motifs in the songs. He had been keeping notes on his inner state since his chaotic booze and chemical fuelled stint on Lolopolooza. This provided the conceptual backbone for the songs: “It is personal experiences, but it’s wrapped up in the highly pretentious idea of a record with some sort of theme or flow to ’em, and it was meant to be…It’s become a kind of a dated 70s concept, but some of the records that influenced me a lot on this album, like [David Bowie’s] Low and even The Wall – I’m sure I’m ripping off Pink Floyd, in fact, I know I am ripping them off. There’s records, although they may appear dated today, that try to do things that are more exciting to me than, ‘Here’s my video track and here’s my dance song and here’s my power ballad.’ All that kind of disposability. It was just me bored, trying to come up with something that I kind of wanted to set the parameters to work within, to focus more.”
The expectations for The Downward Spiral were almost crippling. Pretty Hate Machine and Broken had – in a sense – both been produced in secret. But the constant pressure from fans, admirers and other bands asking when the new album was out, how it was going, what it would be like, what the songs would be, what colour the cover would be, started to take their toll.
The album was more of a struggle to make than he realised it would be. The original intention had been to make the album quickly. Reznor cited the example of Nirvana who had gone into the studio and made Nevermind in two weeks. But the process was different for him and soon his new record company Interscope were expressing ‘concern’ at the time that album seemed to be taking to make.
Reznor and Marilyn Manson had started to hang out together, Trent was determined that he would sign Manson to his own Nothing imprint. But aside from the music, the two also shared an interest in LA’s seamier side. As Manson recalled in his book The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell, much of their time together was spent hunting groupies, indulging in strange sex and getting wasted. The stories of depravity that emerged from the sessions are legendary and not always repeatable for reasons of legality and taste. Suffice to say that Reznor even looked debauched, like some mildly bloated Byronic figure, or Jim Morrison after the booze and drugs had started to ravage his looks.
But Reznor survived. He later said: “I just wanted to kill myself. I hated music. I was like, ‘I just want to get back on the road because I hate sitting in a room trying to, trying to’ –how do you say this?—‘just scraping my fucking soul.’ Exploring areas of your brain that you don’t want to go to, that’s painful. You write something down and you go, ‘Fuck, I can’t say that. I don’t want people to know that.’ It’s so naked and honest that you’re scared to let it out. You’re giving a part of your soul away, exposing part of yourself. I avoid that. I hate that feeling of sending a tape out to someone: ‘Here’s my new song. I just cut my soul open. Check it out. Criticize it’.”
Reznor wanted to finish the album and get the Hell out of LA and back on the road.
“That’s the stupidest fucking reason for doing an album I’ve ever heard,” American recordings boss Rick Rubin told Trent when they ran into each other. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it until you make music that it’s a crime not to let other people hear.”
Somehow shaken by Rubin’s advice, Reznor knuckled under and – taking time out to work with Manson – delivered the finished album almost a year after he had started work. The flurry of writing and recording produced 16 songs and some leftovers that would crop up on b-sides, or would be reworked as material for remixes for Nine Inch Nails as well as other artists.
The songs were like frontline reports from the battlefield of Trent Reznor’s psyche. That they were classic songs of negativity, angst, despair and hatred would come as no surprise. But Reznor’s voice – previously heard only through a bank of distortion and FX screaming in mute nostril agony – was transformed, seductive and even sweet. From the deceptively quiet intro to Mr Self Destruct, through the piano melody on March Of The Pigs to the grandiose almost-pop of Closer, to the tenderness in the hate-ballad Piggy, it was clear that The Downward Spiral was an album with light and shade, with blended colours rather than just blocks of bold primary hues. There was enough of the cyber jackbeat on Heresy and the intense title track itself that connected Reznor to his earlier work and still had him filed under ‘Industrial’. But the truth is that he wasn’t so much part of a different genre as an entirely new game altogether.
Attempting to recreate the same sense of ‘masterpiece’ about The Fragile, Reznor succeeded in making a great album that could only be listened to in small doses: in The Downward Spiral he made something magnificent that took you on a journey all the way to the heart of darkness.