Nine Inch Nails achieve a new kind of loud on The Downward Spiral: accessible hard-rock moves overlaid with a scrim of electronic racket, white noise, screams, the kind of blown-speaker rattle that seems to use the limitations of crappy stereo equipment the way that Hendrix riffed on the distortion that howled from overdriven Marshall stacks. It’s a new frontier in rock & roll: music that pins playback levels far into the red. You have only two options with this album: Play it too softly, or play it too loud.
When you slap on “Mr. Self-Destruct,” for example, the first song on the CD, the soft passages are soft chiefly in the sense of not being loud, as if there were a really great party down the street that you were wimping out on, pumped guitars and cranking boom-thwack drum machines and whatnot. But almost as soon as you rush to your pre-amp and squeeze in more juice, the loud comes back in, but so unimaginably loud this time that you think your speaker coils might melt, and old man Reilly in the next apartment has already started to bang his broomstick on the wall.
Then you turn it down and start the cycle again. Sure, bands like Nirvana play the soft-loud game, too, but Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor takes it to sadistic extremes, especially since the song — without the power riffing and the howl, the distortion and the infinite layering — would essentially be as melodic as a late Beatles tune.
What Robert Plant was to the post-blues screech and Kurt Cobain is to Northwest grunge, Reznor is to tortured death-disco howl — existential pain expressed as rock & roll. His 1990 anthem, “Head Like a Hole,” from Pretty Hate Machine, came this close to becoming what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became — the theme song of smart misfits everywhere. Then Nine Inch Nails stole the show from Jane’s Addiction on the first Lollapalooza tour — and sold more T-shirts, too. And when the steel-edged dance-punk hybrid known as industrial finally became popular, a lot of people were betting that Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, the two most important bands associated with the genre, had the potential to redefine rock in their own image.
Ministry, of course, did kind of redefine rock, with an awe-inspiring speedmetal/disco blend that delighted Beavis and Butthead even as it failed to win many converts from fans of less extreme music. Nine Inch Nails came out with Broken at the end of ’92, an intriguingly unlistenable meditation on how much Reznor hated his old record company. While the EP didn’t really break new ground, it did get that second-album thing out of the way.
“March of the Pigs,” the first single from Spiral, alternates purest torment — the anguish of swine before the slaughter — with a piano hook saccharine enough to sell pre-sweetened cereal to toddlers. “Piggy” is an affectionately whispered, almost-tender lost-love song that carries the emotional weight of a George Jones ballad. There’s a lot of pig imagery in the song, perhaps inspired by the nihilist legend carved into slain actress Sharon Tate’s pregnant belly, but the LP is less nihilistic than you might expect.
Recorded not incidentally in the Beverly Hills living room where Tate was murdered (the living room, also not incidentally, of Reznor’s home), The Downward Spiral explores Reznor’s No. 1 subject — control — in a thousand different guises. Paranoia, predation and acceptance, sex power and religious power and gun power, the power of the suffering over the guilty and the consumer over the consumed are all blasted out with the kind of overwhelming presence Baudelaire might have had if he’d had access to a battery of Macintoshes, a MIDI hookup and a Strat.
Reznor’s voice seduces and insinuates where it previously expressed itself only in animal screams; it slithers into your ears and curls up somewhere near the medulla oblongata. He sometimes even expresses an emotion that isn’t anger, which throws the full-on assault of his catch phrases — “Don’t you tell me how I feel”; “Your God is dead, and no one cares” — into brilliant relief.
The Downward Spiral is music the blade runner might throw down to: low-tech futurism that rocks.