A look back at the most deliberately frustrating album ever made for popular consumption.
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.
You know how Woody Guthrie has THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on his guitar? Peter Brötzmann's reeds should have signs that say THIS MACHINE KILLS, PERIOD.
You know how Woody Guthrie has THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on his guitar? Peter Brötzmann's reeds should have signs that just say THIS MACHINE KILLS. Period, full stop. I say this knowing full well I've backed away from the aesthetic that the harsher and more uncompromising the art, the more "true" and "real" it is. But then I put on something like Machine Gun and come halfway close to believing it all over again. It's like the result of a dare: Someone said to Brötzmann and his seven buddies, go make a racket that ought to clear the room, and instead it pins everyone down and has them clamoring for more. Here it is. You're welcome.
When I'm happy, this record reminds me of what I'm transcending; when I'm not, it reminds me of how to transcend.
This is an album about death, which means it is, inevitably, also an album about life. I wrote that preceding platitude, or something like it, the first time I heard Superunknown, and immediately felt embarrassed for having done so. The idea that death and life are the face and back of the same coin is a triviality along the lines of water's dampness. Then you spend a little time, or maybe a little more than a little time, in the shadow of that truth, under the weight of it, in the belly of it, and it's not a fortune cookie anymore.
A thunderous fusion of jazz and industrial rock, way out of print but absolutely worth seeking out.
Among the many downsides of entertainment conglomerate mergers is the way hordes of indie labels snapped up by the majors in the '90s and '00s have had their catalogues vanish into the ether. Case in point: Big Cat, a UK label currently owned by who the heck knows, the vast majority of whose releases exist only as pricy out-of-print CDs or YouTubed bootlegs. Among them, and richly deserving a reissue, is God's Anatomy Of Addiction, a thunderous fusion of jazz and industrial rock that has none of the pretentiousness of the former or the inflexibility of the latter.
"The album that killed Skinny Puppy", an only partly realized concept record about a cult movement, has much to recommend it after 25 years.
My theory of the cultural history of the past twenty-five years is that not only has there been almost no progress, but that we have regressed in so many ways -- and so silently that when we're confronted with evidence of the regression, it manifests not simply as psychic shock but actual violence. If an album that is more than two and a half decades old sounded ahead of its time both then and now, that's two signs in one: 1) the work was one of genius, and 2) the rest of us have not applied any of its lessons at scale. Or, where we have, those lessons remain off in the margins, not informing popular culture in a way that moves it forward. For a long time, though, I didn't think about The Process in this light at all. It was mainly "the album that killed Skinny Puppy".
Over thirty years later, a record as jarringly fresh now -- maybe more so now -- than it was when it first undermined everyone's expectations.
The first time I heard about Talk Talk, it was by way of a friend, in what amounted to an insult. "They have a singer, Mark Hollis, whose voice is so nasal he sounds like he's singing through his forehead. You can't make out a word. So they have the lyrics on the album sleeve, in his handwriting. You can't read his handwriting either." He laughed, but I didn't: what all that told me was the words weren't what really mattered, and those things were Hollis's way of telegraphing all that. I have always been more charitable to a fellow artist than I have any right to be. I can't say I have ever regretted it. I certainly don't regret it when it comes to Talk Talk or The Spirit Of Eden, even if I didn't actually hear the album until almost thirty years after that discussion.
Alan Vega is dead, and that means there will never be another Suicide album. But it also means there will never be another Alan Vega album, and that matters at least as much to me.
Alan Vega is dead, and that means there will never be another Suicide album. But it also means there will never be another Alan Vega album, and the man's solo career has come to mean as much to me as his partnership with Martin Rev did.
In truth his "solo" work simply meant anything he did outside of his partnership with Rev; since 1990 or so anything sporting his name only has been him and his wife Liz Lamere. She'd provide a herky-jerk wall of computer-generated throb and rasp, and he'd provide that snarling, hollering, whooping, crooning voice, the "Iggy-cum-Elvis psychobilly attack", as someone else once put it.
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