All posts for Music in April 2021

Music: The Downward Spiral (Nine Inch Nails)

A look back at the most deliberately frustrating album ever made for popular consumption.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-04-05 21:00:00 No comments

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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.

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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.

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Tags: Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor electronic music industrial music review

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