Nine Inch Nails: Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral Music
by Nine Inch Nails

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It's an almost universally recognized fact that very few musicians are fully capable of combining cathartic and intense albums with fragments of postmodern philosophy. Whereas most bands whine and preen about the agonies of modern life and rarely penetrate the surface, Trent Reznor's ability to see deep down into the agony of his generation has rendered him, not unlike Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, as a national treasure. The difference between the two is that, somehow, Reznor managed to hit the brakes during his break-neck speed journey to total oblivion, and so it's Reznor who returns 'from the dead' to spread casual nihilism amongst the impressionable youth.

The debate which has recently saturated internet forums across the globe regards Reznor's religious beliefs. Although the pessimistic and hopeless lyrics of his breakthrough album 'The Downward Spiral' advocated a deconstruction of values that would have filled Friedrich Nietzsche with pride, the musician has undeniably mellowed somewhat in recent years. The subject matter of his lyrics is consistently dark, and often advocates a debauched lifestyle of hedonism. It's of course no secret that Reznor himself battled with addictions to alcohol and cocaine, but unlike famous self- destructive forerunners like Sid Vicious or Jim Morrison, Trent Reznor has lived to tell the tale. It's perhaps this sudden rejection of the downward spiral in his own life that has pushed Reznor to turn away from lyrics advocating suicide and casual nihilism.

His emergence onto the US music scene came about in 1994, following the release of his third album 'The Downward Spiral.' Concept albums such as this one were almost out of fashion – in fact, America hadn't really seen any concept albums of merit in the preceding years, except of course Pink Floyd's 'The Wall.' The album begins with a grainy and brutal sample from the George Lucas film 'THX 1138' and continues as it means to go on – a cacophony of bizarre industrial riffs, punctuated by depressing and suicidal lyrics. The tenuous storyline of the album is as follows: an unnamed narrator, having suffered from bouts of depression, decides that life is fundamentally devoid of all meaning and therefore decides to commit suicide. The album follows this anonymous speaker as he systemically destroys all of his preconceived beliefs, such as those of a benevolent god and intrinsic morality, before eventually shooting himself in the head. What surprises listeners is that despite the narrator committing suicide in the eponymous thirteenth track 'The Downward Spiral', there exists a fourteenth track, the now legendary song 'Hurt.'

'Hurt' has been interpreted by critics in many ways. Those who wish to corroborate the belief that Reznor is simply an ardent nihilist will claim it is an elegy to the death of traditional values of society: self improvement has been replaced by self destruction. Others comment on Reznor's audacity in bringing the marginalized social issue of self harm to the foreground, by molding a song around the dramatic situation of a narrator slashing his wrists with a needle. Furthermore, there is the interesting point that the 'needle in the vein' which is mentioned in 'Hurt', is also mentioned in the opening track 'Mr Self Destruct', creating a cyclic structure of heroin abuse within the album. Reznor himself has fiercely denied that he has ever been dependent upon heroin, and so it's possible that the imagery is simply a metaphor for something else – addiction to women, perhaps. However, the philosophical paradox that a narrator, who does not believe in the afterlife, is actually speaking to the listener from beyond the grace has sparked significant amounts of critical discussion. Some have even asserted that despite Reznor's image as the enemy of all organized religion and belief systems, there are a number of theistic ideas to be found in his music.

It would seem therefore that the true meaning of most of Reznor's work, 'The Downward Spiral' in particular, is extremely difficult to discern. Although there is undeniably a broad range of atheistic ideas within the songs, such as the 'God is dead' mantra of the fourth track, Reznor himself seems conflicted regarding the nature of death itself. For this reason, one can only assert that theists, nihilists and everyone in between are going to be tugging at Reznor a little longer, each group hungry to claim his ideas a genuflection of their own.
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It's easy to understand why Nine Inch Nails became the industrial band to break out of the techno ghetto and win a larger audience. Trent Reznor, who records the NIN albums almost entirely by himself (although he tours with a full band), tries very hard to pass himself off as an angry young man, but underneath the angst-ridden lyrics, pounding synths, and grating guitars is an irrepressible pop sensibility. On the second full-length NIN album, The Downward Spiral, Reznor builds his constructions of noise and gloom around warm, fuzzy melodies. On the album's first single, "March of the Pigs," for example, Reznor screams about swine lined up for slaughter amid guitars screeching in pain. Suddenly the guitars fall away to reveal the sensually throbbing rhythm track below; then that falls away to reveal a vocal-and-piano track that's as catchy as anything by Elton John. Because Reznor has a better handle on dynamics now, the melodic core is more obvious than ever. --Geoffrey Himes
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Jul 2, 2013
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