music album REVIEW:
- Nine Inch Nails: "The Downward Spiral" (1994)
The defining album of the project that is Trent Reznor's brainchild Nine Inch Nails (you can't really call NIN a band), more than that even genre-defining. A genre of its own, mind you, even though NIN is mostly classed as "industrial" (not by Trent Reznor himself, by the way).
It's a hard to listen to album – sitting through it from start to finish takes some stamina, but it's rewarding. Some more accessible classic tracks such as "Closer" and "Heresy" make it easier – and both tracks are absolute classics of the highest order on their own (in fact "Closer" is often quoted as one of the best songs ever, e.g. by Gary Numan, although personally I prefer "Heresy").
Towards the end, the album gets increasingly more "difficult", but then comes the grand finale: "Hurt", the track that Trent Reznor had to concede at one point was "no longer my song", namely because the cover version by Johnny Cash had almost snatched the song from Reznor. But no regrets – Cash's take on "Hurt" stands as one of the darkest statements of music history. It was his farewell song. His last wave before his death. It doesn't get any darker than that, connotation-wise. (The only reason you don't find it listed in the darkest tracks list is that it is a cover – and I only counted original versions.)
At the other end of "The Downward Spiral", its opener "Mr Self-Destruct" sets the scene more than any other opener to a non-mainstream album I could think of. It's a massive statement – it's like the musical equivalent of machine-gun murder. In fact there is this infamous link to actual murder in the history of this album: it was recorded in the house in which the Charles Manson "Family" sect had committed the barbaric murder of Sharon Tate (and others). To what degree this is reflected in the NIN album is controversial. What isn't is that it's one of the most influential albums of all time.
But note one practical aspect: its dynamic range is so vast that it is almost impossible to listen to it at a normal volume setting at home – you'd hardly hear the quiet bits, while the full-on noisy bits would make your walls crumble. It's best to resort to headphones if you don't have a sound-proof location in which you could really crank it up. And it really isn't just the power of the album – the little quiet details are just as worthy of discovery. It also requires time – it actually still keeps growing on me, and I must have listed to it a hundred times …