Album Review: Nine Inch Nails – “The Downward Spiral”

The Downward Spiral, the second album by Nine Inch Nails, was released on March 8, 1994, and it has been described as a “concept album” that tells the story of the destruction of a man. The album has sold over five million copies worldwide, and has been certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. The Downward Spiral was nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance at the 37th Grammy Awards. I was in college when this album was released, and I was very intrigued to listen to it at the time after seeing the video for “Closer” receiving heavy airplay on MTV.


The Downward Spiral opens with “Mr. Self Destruct.” The song starts out with some pounding and what may be a human voice, and then explodes into the industrial sound associated with Nine Inch Nails. At one point in the song, the instrumentation becomes very minimal, and there is some whispering. Trent Reznor begins increasing the volume of his speaking, and then the music picks back up again. The song opens the story of the album, when the man begins his descent down his downward spiral. The next song on the album is “Piggy,” which is a much slower than the previous song. Also, the instrumentation isn’t nearly as dense. Percussion is given prominence in the instrumentation, and everything else is minimal. This is one of my personal favorites from the album.

“Heresy” opens with a strong synth bassline, which is quickly joined by percussion; there’s also some guitar thrown into the mix. Trent Reznor’s vocals are distorted through quite a bit of the track. This is definitely one of the more “dance oriented” songs on the album, and it’s another song that I really enjoy on the album. This is followed by “March of the Pigs,” which was released as the first single from The Downward Spiral. According to the liner notes, the song has a BPM of 269, and also includes two piano breakdowns. In some respects, the percussion on this song reminds me of the percussion from “Wish,” a single from the Broken EP. “March of the Pigs” is another song from this album that I personally enjoy.

Next is “Closer,” which was released as the second single from The Downward Spiral. The drum track on this song is a bass drum sample from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” that has been heavily modified. The lyrics to this song also contain a bit of profanity, which had to be censored when the song aired on radio and on MTV. Over the years, this has become one of Nine Inch Nails’ most notorious songs, and it’s the song that ultimately helped Trent Reznor become an “industrial rock superstar.” This is the first song that I personally heard from The Downward Spiral, and it remains one of my all-time favorites from the album. “Ruiner” has a strong synth bassline, which is complemented percussion and distortion. This is another one of the more “dance oriented” songs on the album, and it’s also another song on the album that I like.

Next is “The Becoming,” which is one of the slower songs on The Downward Spiral. It’s another song that I personally enjoy on the album. This is followed by “I Do Not Want This,” which is a more midtempo song. It starts out with Trent’s vocals accompanied by a piano and percussion, but it builds up in intensity as the song goes along.

“Big Man With a Gun” is the shortest song on the album, and it clocks in at one minute and thirty-six seconds. While it may be short, it is loud and contains a bit of profanity. It’s another song that I like from The Downward Spiral. “A Warm Place” is a laid back instrumental piece and with rather minimal instrumentation.

Next is “Eraser,” which features very heavy and booming percussion that builds up to a strong synth bassline. There aren’t any lyrics until about the last minute of the song. As the vocals progress, the intensity of the music also increases. “Reptile” is the longest song on the album, clocking in at six minutes and fifty-one seconds. The song starts out quietly, but around a minute in, it starts becoming more intense; it continues to build in intensity as it progresses.

“The Downward Spiral” starts out quietly, and you can even hear an acoustic guitar in the background. Near the end, it builds in intensity, and includes screams in the background. Overall, this track slows the album back down, in order to lead in to “Hurt,” which is the song that closes The Downward Spiral. “Hurt” was released was a promotional single in 1995, and a video for the song received airplay on MTV. “Hurt” is by far the slowest song on the album, but to me, the lyrics are the most poignant. It’s one of my favorite songs from the album. Some readers may recognize “Hurt” from when Johnny Cash covered the song in 2002, and it was released as a single for him around the time of his passing.

Overall, The Downward Spiral is a very strong album. In some respects, it’s a tighter and stronger album than Pretty Hate Machine. As you listen to the album, you can hear how the character in the story for this “concept album” descends through madness and how it all culminates at the end with the song, “Hurt.” Trent Reznor captured the vision of the story perfectly through the writing and production of The Downward Spiral.

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