The key to The Downward Spiral came to me by way of something Roger Ebert once said about a much-maligned but still-valuable Martin Scorsese film, The King Of Comedy. "This is a movie that seems ready to explode — but somehow it never does. ... [T]here is neither comic nor tragic release — just the postponement of pain. ... Scorsese doesn't direct a single scene for a payoff. The whole movie is an exercise in cinema interruptus; even a big scene in a bar ... is deliberately edited to leave out the payoff shots .... Scorsese doesn't want laughs in this movie, and he also doesn't want release."
Emphasis mine, because I think that is exactly what Trent Reznor was also trying to do with The Downward Spiral. What makes this such a tough album to swallow isn't just that it's so noisy or herky-jerky or confrontational, but that it is constructed, track after track and across its whole length, to deny us any real payoff, any real feeling of transcendence or liberation. When we do get it, it's too transitory, too fragmentary, too broken-off to deliver.
All of that is the point. This record isn't about a journey to an insight, but the experience of being trapped in a psychic holding pattern. Consider it the antithesis to Pink Floyd's The Wall: that album tunneled through pain and broke through to self-revelation and catharsis. The Downward Spiral just tunnels back into itself, like the curled worm on the cover of one of the singles released for the disc, and while it doesn't literally end on the exact same note it started on (as The Wall did), it does something more effective: it makes us realize we could have started anywhere and ended anywhere with the record, and it would have made no difference.
So if the whole album is nothing but an Ouroboros of pain, why even bother sequencing it and making it into a front-to-back experience? This was apparently the problem Reznor experienced with the follow-up album, The Fragile, which sprawled across two discs and had a two-to-one ratio of chaff to wheat. He had to bring in producer Bob Ezrin to help make sense of that record, and even Ezrin wasn't able to help; there's a good album in there, but you have to pick up and put down the needle a bunch of times to find it. Spiral, though, is somehow all of a piece, with a momentum and a flow that is apart from its circularity. Over time it teaches us how it works, and then plays on what we have learned to deepen the experience, as a substitute for a more conventional payoff.
There's no attempt to ease the listener into any of this; you're just kicked into it face-first. One of the consequences of that is how at times this sounds almost like a parody of the NIN sound established on the first record and subsequent EP. The opener, "Mr. Self Destruct", comes off at first like a bad clone of stuff like "Head Like A Hole", all pounding 4/4 noise and half-obscured vocals. But then the major strategies for the album as a whole come into play: the use of extreme dynamics — alternating the noise assaults with uneasy ambiences, the better to key us up even further (what comes after the next bar? the next? the next?); pulling the plug on a song right when it seems to be in the middle of something; and, again, never reaching anything like a real climax. Most of the loud parts of the song feel like a climax-in-progress anyway, so there's nowhere to go from up except, well, down.
The downswing we go on from there has, in fact, a lot of swing to it. "Piggy" wouldn't at first seem out of place on one of those postmodern lounge-rock records, but its cumulative effect is horrifying, especially when its metronomic rhythm turn deliberately sloppy. Even worse is how it builds, but doesn't climax. Those drunken drums at about the two-thirds mark should cue off some kind of peak, but they don't; they just lead the song along as it slowly bleeds to death.
If it had appeared on Pretty Hate Machine, "Heresy" (another pounding track like the opener) would have been laughable; it sounds like a calculated attempt to make a stock NIN track. In the context of the rest of Spiral, it makes sense: it's one of the many voices used by the album's protagonists, that of the righteous indignant who cackles with glee at the sight of their world going under. Then comes another exercise in herky-jerk dislocation, "March Of The Pigs" — and this time, there's something like a release at the end, but it comes with such cynicism and bitterness weighting it down that it doesn't achieve liftoff; it lands with a very calculated thud. On one's feet.
With an album this circular, maybe it makes perfect sense to put the one thing in it that's closest to a moment of transcendence near its middle. At least, not at the end, or in a position that could be considered climactic. "Closer" pulls together all the strands of self- and other-loathing that have so far been woven through and bound around the album, and girds them so tightly it feels like you could use that to finally climb out of the pit the album has been digging. Or maybe just float straight up out of it: the entire second half of the song is such a masterful example of tension raised and played off, it feels like whatever chair you're sitting on is slowly levitating and achieving liftoff all on its own.
But we're in the middle of the record, and without even so much as a drawn breath, we get bridged straight into the next track, "Ruiner", an only slightly less chaotic take on the "stock NIN sound" of "Heresy". Here, too, another rug-pull: instead of building and paying off, the song builds, but then in the middle drops to near-silence — and then when it builds again, it's to stop dead in the middle of a bar. "The Becoming", another track probably as close to "conventional" NIN as we've gotten so far, even has a gentle comedown of an ending (escape! a breath of air!). But again, it's just a stopgap before the thunder and turbulence of "I Do Not Want This", and the minute-and-change interruptus of "Big Man With A Gun".
If we've learned anything by now, it's that all respite on this album is false dawn, and everything from here on out is just the final reification of the general strategy. "A Warm Place" sounds like it should be the place from where healing should begin, but it doesn't: it segues into the weird gasping, like someone struggling for air, that opens the murderous "Eraser" (another song that gets killed mid-climax). That, in turn, after another suffocated-sounding space, leads into the slow-motion death trance of "Reptile".
What comes next is not a climax, but a culmination of intent. The entire second half of the title track is what could charitably be described as a musical climax — it uses a descending-notes motif that has been featured throughout the record in different contexts, including "Closer" -- if we could actually hear it. It's buried behind a wall of muffle, like analog tape whose oxide has all but crumbled off. Like Scorsese denying us reaction shots, Reznor is denying us anything like payoff, musical or emotional. And the closer, "Hurt", works the same way: its elegiac tone should give catharsis, especially in the noisy blast of chords that cap the song, but they don't. They just trickle down into that hollowed-out, numbed-out, endlessly reverberating echo that doesn't even end the record so much as it just terminates it.
Reznor and NIN should have been a casualty of what I came to think of as the pop-industrial panic of the early Nineties, where a whole slew of ultimately forgettable outfits came to litter the bins at Tower Records, like Gravity Kills and Sister Machine Gun. (SMG at least had the good taste to name themselves after a Skinny Puppy reference, and have since stuck around, albeit to little avail.) But Reznor had other things going for him. He was drawing on a wider pool of influences than most of those people (who were mostly drawing on what was going on immediately around them at the time), and he had genuine songwriting chops that stood him in good stead no matter what kind of music he'd be making. Most of the people copying him didn't notice he was drawing at least as heavily on the likes of Prince and David Bowie (then considered uncool in the extreme) as he was Gary Numan or Todd Rundgren or, yes, Skinny Puppy (as "Down In It" was a self-admitted rip of "Dig It").
The horde of folks aping NIN in the wake of Pretty Hate Machine, or being strong-armed into aping NIN (as poor Skinny Puppy were with The Process), made me wonder if NIN itself would survive its own success. The only way to do that, it seemed, was to become something radically unlike what people figured it was destined to be. Spiral broke so hard from its predecessors, I wondered if Reznor was attempting to separate the people genuinely interested in his music from those who were only along for the ride. Good for him, I thought, especially if he's able to convince some major record company to allow him to do it on their dime. When was the last time anyone had done something that willfully perverse in the guise of popular music? Maybe Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, but Spiral has the eternal advantage of actually being listenable.
Twenty-five years helped put distance and perspective onto the most self-indulgent excesses of what I sometimes called "Nein Inch Nihils". Even Reznor himself, now a happy dad of five and not the angry young man any longer, has sifted this pan and picked out only the gold, meaning stuff like "Big Man With A Gun" doesn't get performed live (if only because, again, it sounds goofy without the context of the whole record). But the structure he used for the whole, the diabolical strategy of the record, the way it gives the listener no escape in a way little else has done before or since, all of that still feels bracing and new.