Producer: Trent Reznor, Flood
Rock ‘n roll was built on angst. Specifically, it was built on the passion and drive of people needing to be themselves, and given all of society’s many barriers that strive to prevent people from expressing themselves, that fight for expression tends to create a lot of built up emotion. That conflict yielded frustration, anger, and ambition in the years before just as it does now, and just as it always will.
In the time since rock ‘n roll’s inception in the early ’40’s (Elvis Presley, though The King he certainly was and is, popularized rock, not invented it), many artists have focused on angst and emotional turmoil as the cornerstone of their rock music careers. Some have specialized their “angst-ridden” tunes more than others. For every somber, darkened Alice In Chains that laments about heroin addiction and the depression it brings, there is always a Motley Crue that sings about…something. I guess partying. Anyway, there has forever been a range of expertise among professional musicians at effectively channeling their angst and otherwise angry emotions into songwriting, with most being clumsy amateurs (Three Days Grace, Seether, Five Finger Death Punch, Atreyu, Shinedown, etc.). However, the best of the best of the angry rock stars make all the posers melt away with their musical atomic fury. Some of those badasses include the grunge stars (Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam), politically-fueled artists (Rage Against the Machine), and of course their hip hop counterparts (Eminem, The Notorious B.I.G., 2pac, The Roots).
One band that has always stood out as a great ambassador and representation of angst-powered rock music has also been the progenitor of some of the most dark, depressing, angry, violent music ever made. I am talking, of course, about Nine Inch Nails. Created and run by mastermind Trent Reznor, the band has carved out a successful niche for itself with fantastic concept albums, amazing live shows, and a particularly rebellious attitude to the music industry. Reznor initiated things with his impressive and unique debut of Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, and then teased us again with an excellent Broken EP in 1992. However, all that was buildup for the ultimate angst-ridden concept album released in 1994: The Downward Spiral (TDS).
TDS is unquestionably the best album by NIN, as it not only possesses some of the band’s best songs (“Closer,” “March of the Pigs,” “Reptile,” “Hurt”), but it also fits together and is more fully realized as a singular project than any other of Reznor’s work. A large part of what makes TDS great is how well it evolves over the course of its 65 minute running time, how well it paces itself. The whole album is a focused, very angry story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. It has a consistent (also very angry) theme, and it sticks to it. It is the farthest thing from many albums that are just a collection of random songs thrown together without any rhyme or reason to them.
Things start off with a bang in “Mr. Self Destruct.” NIN’s violent, wrathful tone is made clear right from the outset, with harsh riffs and seething vocals coalescing over pounding drums, all of which make clear that the concepts introduced and analyzed by this album are not to be taken lightly. The angst then gets a new facelift in the bizarre, almost laid back funk of “Piggy.” It’s an old-fashioned “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” song, but it’s mannerisms are in complete contrast with TDS’s violent introduction. The differences between these two opening songs is a good example of the record’s incredible variety, which goes a long way toward sharpening up the music’s pace.
Things quickly get angrier again, but this time in a much more focused, cynical tone in “Heresy,” the ultimate atheist’s anthem. The riff’s are straight-up hard rock, with the aggressive riffs punching you in the throat and never letting up. The terrifying chorus of “God is dead, and no one cares/If there is a hell, I’ll see you there” is made all the scarier given the fact that Reznor is screaming it with all his soul — but not in an irritating, emo way. It’s all sheer, effective, controlled violence.
“March of the Pigs” continues the theme of violent cynicism and makes for yet another hallmark of NIN’s library. It even manages to contain a few flecks of dark humor amidst all the aggression. Next, follows “Closer,” which is undoubtedly the most famous and recognizable song that Reznor ever wrote. It is as much a sexual frustration song as it is a song about sex in general. Within it are intricately intertwined themes of jealousy and rage, a daring for an unnamed individual (former lover?) to accept the narrator’s isolation, and “the hate that it brings.” The song is essentially six minutes of musical perfection, evolving from a simple heartbeat over a faint series of dying chords to a horrifying yet irresistible jungle of sexual potency. You just have to experience it for yourself.
What more can Reznor do but deliver again and again? Once the dying chords of “Closer” finally fade into oblivion, “Ruiner” picks up the load and rocks out to an oddly psuedo-traditional hard rock tune. The sixth track contains one of the few guitar solos in NIN’s deep catalog, and builds to a strong conclusion. The rest of the album continues this trend of angry isolation, frustration, anger, wrath, hate, and much, much more hate. Eventually, things hit a softer, more quietly depressing note as the anger briefly subsides in a lush, isolated home of non-caring in “A Warm Place.” The respite doesn’t last long, as the angry suffering returns with a vengeance (as depression so often entails) in “Reptile.” The beat to this song doesn’t sound like a drum, but rather as my fellow classmate once described, like a drum factory. The fact that Reznor was able to take this sound and not just make the song work, but actually blossom, is an incredible feat. Few artists can layer bizarre tones as sublimely as NIN’s frontman can.
Inevitably though, the anger is drowned out for good due to sheer exhaustion by the time the album’s titular track comes around. The anger finally melts away, but only because the energy to sustain such hate and wrathful emotion has run out. The “peace” culminates in NIN’s most famously melancholic, downtrodden tune, “Hurt.” The song that country legend, Johnny Cash, eventually took a swing at poetically summarizes the main theme of isolation and sadness that underlies all of the anger, violence, and aggression of TDS. For Reznor, as it is for many people, isolation and sadness are the genesis of the problem, and anger and rage are, in the end, just some of many symptoms. The poignant lines of “What have I become?/My sweetest friend/Everyone I know goes away in the end…” eventually climax in the heartbreaking regret of the following: “If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way…“
In the end, NIN’s TDS is a beautiful tribute to the painful diaries of emotionally troubled individuals from all over the world. It is so beautiful because it is so well written. Never again would Reznor reach such an unforgettable pinnacle as he did in 1994. Really, every album since has been a rather poorly disguised effort to recapture and mimic the format of NIN’s magnum opus. Nothing remotely like it has been written since, even by its creator. Truly, there is, nor will there ever be, any musical project quite like TDS. If nothing else, it is an amazing insight into the mind of emotional turmoil that some people experience, and if you are too dense to understand it, at the very least it will scare the shit out of you. Even then, you will likely better understand where Reznor and people like him are coming from.
–> The Downward Spiral comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Standout Tracks: “Mr. Self Destruct,” “Piggy,” “March of the Pigs,” “Closer,” “Reptile,” “Hurt”
? Fuck you like a what?
Pingback: Top 5 Working Hip Hop Artists (circa 2015) | Express Elevator to Hell - March 1, 2015
Pingback: ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (2016): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - June 22, 2016
Pingback: Revisiting Nine Inch Nails | Express Elevator to Hell - February 28, 2020