Downward Spiral





The Boston Phoenix


4. März 1994


Trent Reznor's new CD tours the dark side

Autor: Ted Drozdowski






Nine Inch Nails‘ Spiral is one hell of a ride

by Ted Drozdowski

We may never know whether androids dream of electric sheep, but thanks to aggressively high-tech tunesmith Trent Reznor, we do know what their nightmares sound like. His recordings under the name Nine Inch Nails are splattering heaps of electric hell, layer upon layer of guitars, samples, percussion, bass, and synthesizers flayed till they scream like a machine gone mad, so strung out it’s devouring itself, grinding each microchip and connector in its soul right down to the dust from which it came and to which we will all return.

What‘s scary and appealing and mystical about Reznor‘s music isn‘t his ability to conjure future meltdown with current technology, but how very darkly human — and at times superhuman — he makes it all sound. Part of the reason is his voice, which is at once venomous, vulnerable, and vengeful. But there‘s more to it. Reznor puts ghosts in the machine, and every one of them seems to know our names and nastiest secrets.

His new Nine Inch Nails album, The Downward Spiral, on his own Nothing label, is everything its title promises: a journey through the familiar realms of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It‘s a white-knuckled descent into the Pit that combines the polished-metal and wire terrain of the cybernet with tableaux right out of Hieronymus Bosch, with Reznor‘s deepest currents of remorse, desolation, loathing, lust, violence, and confusion coursing alongside.

Those emotions are stock-in-trade for Reznor‘s kind — the so-called industrial musicmaker. The genre thrives on the dark side, plumbing alienation — especially youthful alienation — and the struggle for identity for every shadowed catacomb it can pillage. Although Reznor is, in many aspects, dragging the same sonic and interpersonal cesspool that predecessors from This Mortal Coil to Skinny Puppy did in the early ‘80s, he does so with a rarefied sense of melody and pop-song com position. Like Brian Eno, he‘s an explorer who understands that the weird can be accessible without compromising itself. That was the joy of hearing “Head like a Hole“ and “Terrible Lie“ when his debut album, 1989‘s Pretty Hate Machine (TVT), carne ripping out of the radio like an Alien from a gurgling astronaut‘s chest. More important, that was why those songs came tearing out of the radio in the first place.

His follow-up EP, 1992‘s Broken (Nothing), found him pushing his studio palette harder — so hard that the songcraft suffered, though that six-tune serving does sport one great title: “Help Me I Am in Hell.“ For all his music‘s dir ness, no one can accuse Reznor of not having a sense of humor.

Remixed with an ear turned to clarity, the Broken material was re-released a few months later as Fixed in a limited pressing of 50,000 copies. But it‘s The Downward Spiral that is the million-selling Pretty Hate Machine‘s inheritor. Reznor has fused the dissonant circuits he carved for Broken with his earlier vision of songwriting as science fiction, gothic horror, and pres sure valve. Which means it‘s possible to sing along with many of his new songs, as long as you can sift the lyrics out of his colorful sonic rubble (or check the lyric sheet); and it‘s possible to get lost in the new universe of sounds he‘s created; and it‘s possible to dance to the battering, perked-coffee beats that pop out of the mix. And when the guitar and drums bellow like banshees, you can bang your head.

“I want to fuck you like an animal,“ which Reznor bellows like a boar blasted by double-barreled hormones in the chorus of “Closer,“ won‘t endear him to programmers or parents. Likewise “Heresy,“ with the rant “Your god is dead and no one cares,“ and “Big Man with a Gun,“ which equates guns and gunplay with dicks and cocksmanship and the uncontrolled male ego, in a wash of various bodily fluids. But who gives a shit? It‘s not as if Pretty Hate Machine needed “Casey Kasem‘s American Top 40“ or the PTA to go platinum.

And these songs, in particular “Big Man“ and “Closer,“ show that Reznor has sharpened his lyric skills. With its heavy metal guitars and densely woven big-drum thunder backing his ranting powerhouse screed, “Big Man“ takes dead sonic aim at late-adolescent males. They‘re a group particularly infatuated with firearms, more likely to pull the trigger on their friends or enemies by accident or for the thirst of experience than any other. It would take a special kind of lunkhead not to consider what Reznor‘s saying about the stupidity and misdirection and sublimation of gun play when he sings “Got me a big old dick and I/I like to have fun/Held against your forehead/I‘ll make you suck it/Maybe I‘ll put a hole in your head/You know, just for the fuck of it . . . I‘m hard as fucking steel and I‘ve got the power/I‘m every inch a man and I‘ll show you somehow . . . I‘m going to come all over you/Me and my fucking gun.“ Not as subtle as Lennon-McCartney, but we‘re not living in a subtle age.

“Closer“ cuts a finer line, even with Reznor‘s savage love call. The song‘s not about brutal Sex; it‘s a desperate plea for connection with another human being, a cry for personal and spiritual restoration through grinding, sweaty communion. Reznor sings, “You can have my Isolation; you can have the hate that it brings/You can have my absence of faith; you can have my everything/Help me tear down my reason; help me it‘s your sex I can smell/Help me you make me perfect; help me become somebody else.“ And he does it in a voice that‘s small, compressed, trapped — shoehorned through a guitar amplifier. It‘s sex as salivation he‘s begging for; he needs raw, consuming animal satisfaction to squelch the complex and distancing frequencies in his head — the media crosstalk, the education and training, the high-pressure demands, the self-absorption that all come tumbling into the pressure cooker of survival and ambition in our culture.

Complex stuff, and— yeah — it won‘t airplay in Peoria. Or Boston, either. Denouncing God and graphically worshipping one‘s dick still doesn‘t pop with mainstream programmers — unless it‘s done with the gentility that XTC and Jackson Browne have shown. But that was then. Reznor‘s a product of the Reagan- Bush era; he knows gentle words can‘t be trusted. In every shout, boom, squeal, and buzz of Nine Inch Nails, he‘s screaming “Just say no“ to bullshit and complacency.

Nonetheless, Reznor‘s set some of his best bait for radioheads into The Downward Spiral‘s mix. “Piggy,“ crooned over a dominant synth-bass figure has his smoothest, clearest vocal — freed from his pile of electronic distortion until the vengeance call “Nothing can stop me now“ becomes his mantra. The result is smooth and melodic, capering along over a dub rhythm until flailing drums kick in to reinforce the short-circuiting anger that‘s behind his controlled and breathy whisper, which is tempered by a malevolent edge.

“March of the Pigs“ is a perfect little Pop song. At 2:55, it‘s a pithy little ditty about a fall from power, or grace, and the mentality of the mob that relishes the drop for the sake of spectacle and the thrill of meanness. Reznor roars his lyrics full bore, and they‘re powered by hardcore style kit-drumming and gnarled, distorted guitar. This is punk rock, man, leavened only by a single line — “Now doesn‘t that make you feel better“ — that leaps out of the mix, an oasis of piano and Reznor‘s untreated voice that intensifies the irony.

There‘s a second, larger oasis farther along the disc. The aptly named “A Warm Place“ seems like Reznor‘s only overt nod to Eno‘s inspiration. And it‘s a welcome, peaceful stop between “Big Man with a Gun“ and the intensifying rant of “Eraser,“ which ends with Reznor yowling “Kill me“ a la the Swans‘ Michael Gira. “A Warm Place“ begins with the lulling hum of a great turbine, or a Godzilla-scale bee, and evolves into a descending chord progression that gets more shadowed with repetition but is suddenly cut by the entrance of brightly hued single notes — on either guitar or keyboard that flicker with the random hope of fireflies.

Lt‘s Reznor‘s prettiest work, and proof that his worldview isn‘t unremittingly bleak. But grab an earful, because the ride gets pretty intense till the end. “Eraser“ gives way to ‘Reptile,“ in which he conjures a female demon right out of The Garden of Earthly Delights. She‘s full of insects, reptile‘s blood courses through her veins, and she spreads disease and impurity with her touch. Of course, she‘s al ready infected Reznor‘s character in the song.

The next stop for that character is the Pit itseif. And in the CD‘s title track, which follows, the rope ladder to the Devil‘s playroom is a bullet. You wouldn’t know it from hearing “The Downward Spiral,“ which kicks in with detuned acoustic guitar and the woodwinds from “A Day in the Life,“ then begins an onslaught of chord clusters and other textures reeling in a mad stumble so thick the vocals are as buried as the pea under the proverbial mattress. But the lyrics printed in the CD booklet are a graphic suicide story: “He couldn‘t believe how easy it was/He put the gun into his face! Bang!! (So much blood for such a tiny little hole) . . . a lifetime of fucking things up fixed in one determined flash.“ For the final verse, Reznor switches to first person, singing about “The deepest shade of mushroom blue/All fuzzy/Spilling out of my head.“ Yikes. Chilling, and hopefully not inspiring. (Remember that damn Judas Priest suit?) Maybe this is the kind of stuff you write when you‘re working in the house Sharon Tate was murdered in, as he was for much of this album.

Nonetheless, it‘s all of a piece with the concluding “Hurt,“ in which an immortal — and probably immoral, if regretful — being recounts the hurt he‘s done to himself “today“ but shrugs it off from beneath his “crown of shit“ and the liar‘s throne upon which he lords over an “empire of dirt,“ friendless, soulless, and empty. Is this the lamentation of Beelzebub, or the song that Reagan used to sing during his rare lucid moments in the shower? Or, like the earlier “The Becoming,“ in which a human soul fuses with a machine‘s icy heart, is it a sign of what happens when creators arc made slaves to the world they‘ve made and become more — and far less — than they dreamed? If that sounds like your life, bubby, that‘s the point. The Downward Spiral, in all its auditory and lyrical challenges, demands that we look within ourselves for answers.