52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations), Chapter 30: The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral at the perfect time to completely hook a kid like me. And while Trent Reznor has grown and matured as an artist and a person and I’d like to think I’ve grown and matured as a person myself, The Downward Spiral is still one of those albums that are a touchstone in my life.

It was mid spring of 1994. Jeremy had joined up with Columbia House (much like my family had) and he had gotten a batch of CDs. I had gone over, I think to either borrow some music, talk about roleplaying games or both. I don’t remember if it was the first thing he did or the last thing he did before I left that night but it ended up being one of the most important to my musical tastes.

“Hey, you like Ministry right? These guys are kind of like them.”

And with that, he handed me a copy of The Downward Spiral to listen to when I got home.

I honestly didn’t know what I was going to get when I put the disc into my CD player. What I got was equal part loud, abrasive, mechanical, organic, violent and gentle. It’s kind of like a giant killing machine being thrown off a cliff into the ocean. It makes a lot of racket as it bounces off the cliff side but in the end, it gently descends to the ocean’s floor.

I ordered my copy the next week.

The album pushed all the right buttons for my teenage mind. It was loud, it spoke a little bit to the alienation inside me that all teenager tend to possess. I remember what I really liked about it, at the time, was the fact that like Ministry, it had a really hard edge to it but technology was obviously used. Samples made sounds through out, there were odd noises that sounded like they came out of my video games (the music to “Hersey” for example, starts off with the sounds of a cool old arcade game to me). There was a drive behind each song. It had a cohesive theme of the self-destruction of a person which I could dig. But what made it stand out for young Brent was I could make out 99% of Trent’s vocals. Some of which I could even sing along too.

It was in this first listening I fell in love with Nine Inch Nails. Pretty Hate Machine and Broken quickly followed into my collection. Every Nine Inch Nails release since then has bought the day of its release. As of this writing, I just got the band’s latest EP, Add Violence, into my digital playlists until a physical release is to be had.

The weird thing is, I always kind of thought I might outgrow The Downward Spiral. I’m not an angry teenager anymore not that I was very angry, to begin with. there’s still something about the album that speaks to me at that level but at the same time, as an adult, I can appreciate the whole of The Downard Spiral for other reasons.

This is an incredibly well-crafted album. There is not a note out of place, not a sound where it shouldn’t be. The album rises and falls at just the most perfect of moments. You get the wind up of the opening to “Mr. Self Destruct” and then full steam ahead only to slide in smoothly to a breather with “Piggy.” The energy ramps up again with “Hersey” and “March of the Pigs,” and then slows back in with “Closer.” A similar pattern maintains throughout the album with each song smoothly sliding into the next until we hit the end of the road with “Hurt.” It’s an album that you can’t really skip songs on, it’s best when played as a whole piece.

The song writing itself is very good. Trent dug in deep and not only found the pain represented on these songs but used it to maximum effect. Knowing about his various substance abuse issues now, it feels a little odd to listen to as you kind of wonder, “How much of this is a character and how much of this is Trent writhing in pain?” And maybe that’s why I still love these songs so much. I may not be the same kid who listened to the album in 1994, but in 2017, the songs on The Downward Spiral still make me feel something when I hear them.

As I mentioned off the top, the great thing about Trent is that he has grown as an artist and as a person. While I’m sure some fans might hate the fact that he didn’t make ten more Downward Spirals, I like the fact that I never quite know what I’m going to to get from one album to the next. He’s like my favorite film directors. I will always go to see a Takashi Miike film because whether I like it, love it or hate it, it will always be interesting and worth a look. Luckily in the Nine Inch nails cannon, there are no duds for me. There are some that I like less than others. With Teeth may be the least favorite of the albums but it’s still rather good and still gets time on my stereo from time to time.

From that hand off of an album I had never heard of by a band I had kind of heard of created a fan for life. 4 concerts, 8 studio albums, 1 live album, a mass of remix albums, live bootlegs, concert DVDs, soundtracks and who know what else later, I’m still looking forward to the next release.

Brent Chittenden

Brent Chittenden is a freelance writer with a gift for the geek. Currently a writer with A Journal Of Musical Things and a podcaster with True North Nerds, he's also written for Comic Book Daily, Explore Music and a dozen other places. Currently, he is the co-host of the True North Nerds podcast. You can find out more at www.facebook.com/bcchittenden

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