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The Downward Spiral marked something of a watershed in the career of Trent Reznor and his long-running industrial metal act Nine Inch Nails. Prior to its release in 1994, Reznor had struggled to find an audience in a world dominated by glam metal, but his 1992 EP Broken saw the group gaining Grammy awards and critical acclaim, bringing them into the mainstream and regular fixtures on MTV.
Following the unleashing of The Downward Spiral two years later, Reznor found himself on tour supporting David Bowie, overseeing the soundtracks to Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway and helping to launch the career of Marilyn Manson.
Yet while he was at the peak of his creative and commercial success, Reznor was struggling with his own personal demons, which had been personified on his latest album.
Opening with a sample taken from George Lucas’ dystopian classic THX 1138, in which the sounds of whipping slowly begin to intensify, The Downward Spiral proved to be an uncompromising and at times difficult-to-endure experience. From the appropriately-titled Mr. Self Destruct to the closing misery of Hurt, the album caught Reznor at his most sincere and vulnerable. Its legacy is all the more notorious due to his decision to record at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, the same house where, fourteen years earlier, rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate and a group of friends were brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family.’ It would be during this same time that Reznor would agree to help Marilyn Manson re-record their debut album, Portrait of An American Family, after sessions at Criteria Studios in Florida had proved unsuccessful. The band’s eponymous frontman would repay the favour by appearing in the video for Nine Inch Nails‘ Gave Up, the final promo to be released from Broken.
1994 also proved to be a watershed for the American music landscape, with the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain hammering a nail into the coffin of the grunge scene, while the likes of Korn paved the way for the subsequent nu-metal movement. Among the more popular rock albums to appear that year were Green Day‘s breakthrough Dookie, Soundgarden‘s Superunknown and Pantera‘s Far Beyond Driven. Yet even among these diverse records, there was something about the latest Nine Inch Nails offering that dug its way beneath the skin. ‘The Downward Spiral finds its depths within, as Reznor pulls you into the tortured turns of his damaged psyche,’ declared Ann Powers in her Spin review. ‘It’s Trent Reznor’s gift, and his act of courage, to take us to a place beyond help, and show us that even in this darkness, we still feel.’
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Reznor looks back two decades, when a twenty-eight-year-old multi-instrumentalist poured out his heart and soul onto what would become The Downward Spiral. With Cobain having taken his own life a little over six months after the release of his band’s third album In Utero, while the Manic Street Preachers‘ Richey Edwards would later disappear following their nihilistic masterpiece The Holy Bible, one could have been forgiven for fearing that Reznor may never find his way out of his pit. Yet Nine Inch Nails are set to release their eighth full-length studio album in September, fresh from Reznor’s Academy Award-winning work as a composer for filmmaker David Fincher, and the horror of The Downward Spiral is long behind him.‘I was thinking a lot about The Downward Spiral album era, and the person I was at that time,’ explained Reznor in the interview. ‘Downward Spiral felt like I had an unending bottomless pit of rage and self-loathing inside me and I had to somehow challenge something or I’d explode. I thought I could get through by putting everything into my music, standing in front of an audience and screaming emotions at them from my guts…but after a while it didn’t sustain itself, and other things took over – drugs and alcohol.’
He continues, ‘And I’m happy that I don’t feel that way any more. I’ve learned to recognise, a lot of it forced through the process of recovery, that I’m wired wrong in certain ways, the chemical balance of my brain is off in terms of depression a little bit. This record was written as the other side of that journey. The despair and loneliness and rage and isolation and the not-fitting-in aspect that still is in me, but I can express that in a way that feels more appropriate to who I am now. And often that rage is quieter.’