An album by Nine Inch Nails, released in 1994 by Nothing/Interscope. The music is continuous, alternating between songs and instrumentals.

Trent Reznor's musical style borrows from Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode, The Revolting Cocks, and Pigface, all of which being bands he played with at some point before or during Nine Inch Nails. The Downward Spriral is distinctive because of Reznor's avoidance of the kind of drum machines used by KMFDM and Skinny Puppy. Instead he uses a live drummer (Chris Vrenna), as well as grating, industrial samples like the kind used by Pink Floyd in the intro to Welcome to the Machine. In terms of sound synthesis, Trent is using highly programmable keyboards to produce various kinds of colored white noise, mixed in with heavy sampling. A good example is the outro of Mr. Self Destruct.

The Downward Spiral is a concept album. Due to the number of references to "I", "You" and "he", and the characters of "Annie", "Piggy", "The ruiner", etc., it's clear Reznor is outlining a progression of events in a central character's life. It's not a happy story. It portrays a modern man in torment, torn between the internal and the external.

The first song, Mr. Self Destruct, presents an introduction to the main themes of the character's life. It presents a personification of the destructive and addictive forces he subscribes to: sex, drugs, and violence but also religion, hatred, and lies. These elements are combined into one destructive force within himself, which he names "Mr. Self Destruct." In the chorus he repeats, "You let me do this to you." We later learn that "you" is a friend of his, described to be female. It's doubtful they've had a spot-free relationship, having heard his confessions of drug use and sexual compulsion. He is hating his inability not to hurt the people near him.

Next, "Piggy" begins the story of The Downward Spiral at the end of their relationship. He expresses caring for the girl, but only in the sense that he has been damaged by their parting. He is not saying "I love you, I want you back." Instead, "Nothing can stop me now, 'cause I don't care anymore." That is to say, a bullet couldn't stop him, because he is letting go of the idea that life has anything worth living for. In the liner notes of the album, the song concludes with the lyric, "Nothing can stop me now/ Because you don't need me anymore" This line is full of pain, indicating he hasn't made a clean break with the world, but carries a lot of hatred over the ordeal.

In Heresy, he lashes out against god, accusing him of bringing AIDS to the world and sponsoring atrocities. He's making an atheist argument against Christianity, saying that followers of the religion are "This flock of sheep" It's not clear whether he had, at one time, kept faith in the Christian god. This theme returns in Ruiner.

March of the Pigs is equally a song about the nature of violence and society. In the character's mind, the outside world is met with violence: "I want to break it up/ I want to smash it up/ I want to fuck it up/ I want to watch it come down." We can guess from the presence of contempt in the other songs that he is referring with public life, which is full of "Lies". Is it a coincidence that Trent is American?

The fifth track, Closer recieved a lot of airplay on Clear Channel stations, being one of the songs in addition to Marilyn Manson's Beautiful People which were only played at night. It is, no less, rich with meaning. The lyric is a branch from the chorus of "Mr. Self Destruct": "You let me violate you/ you let me desecrate you/ you let me penetrate you/ you let me complicate you." Until Hurt, the character is painfully attached to "you", without expressing any hint of emotion If she left because of these abuses, "You let me" is a false argument. It's also possible she used him, suggested in the line "My little piggy/ needed something new" in Piggy. In any case, we learn what he feels for her:

"Help me, you tear down my reason. Help me, it's your sex I can smell.
Help me, you make me perfect. Help me become somebody else--"

It appears she did everything for him: she made him a better person, tore down the reasoning behind his depression, and tried to pull him out of resignation. In the end, she gave up or left. Now he is unable to define himself without her support. Poor guy.

Ruiner is steeped in metaphor. The lyrics are here. "You" is now no longer the female "you". He maybe referring to any combination of himself, god, or his penis. The song is a combination of Heresy, Piggy, and Big Man with a Gun. It's possible he's referring to childhood abuse.

The seventh track, The Becoming, our hero is changing. While in Piggy and Closer he felt some variant of pain towards the his woes, it now appears that he doesn't feel anything. The personification of his violent tendencies is still around, now named My Machine. He has overthown god in his mind, and is without direction. He seeks to relieve pain, and finds a way: ";It's the nature of my circuitry" The thematic significance of this is beyond the scope of an essay, and possibly language in general. The character finds a way to nullify pain, thereby becoming inhuman.<;sup>1

From then on, the story continues with the same ideas. I do not want this, Big man with a Gun and A Warm Place2 continue on the themes of violence, profound loneliness, and internal turmoil. The song The Downward Spiral either details the character's ultimate suicide or shows him pondering on the possibility, according to interpretation.

The album reaches a cathartic conclusion with Hurt:

"If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.

Now, the pounding industrial rythms of the rest of the album are replaced with a single voice and a guitar. Through processes left out of the story, he has come to understand all of what has happened to him, or had known all along. It would be hard to describe this as an ending containing hope.

1The name "Annie" in The Becoming may be a reference to the book The Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, or the poem "For Annie" by Edgar Allen Poe

2There are lyrics to A warm place which can be heard far below the level of the music. A voice says "The best thing about life is...knowing you put it together."


Nine Inch Nails


March 8, 1994


Nothing/Interscope Records (UK releases are Nothing/Island Records.)




Nine Inch Nails' 8th 'halo' release is an unforgettable examination of the downward spiral of a suicidal man.


Writing, arrangement and performance: Trent Reznor
Production: Trent Reznor and Flood

Track list

  1. Mr. Self Destruct (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Texture generating guitars by Adrian Belew)
  2. Piggy (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  3. Heresy (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  4. March of the Pigs (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  5. Closer (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Special hi-hat programming by Flood)
  6. Ruiner (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  7. The Becoming (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Ring mod guitar by Adrian Belew. ARP 2600 by Flood)
  8. I do not want this (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Drum performance by Stephen Perkins. Drum treatment by Flood and Trent Reznor)
  9. Big Man with a Gun (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineers: Billy Kennedy and Sean Beavan. Additional guitars by Danny Lohner. Steakhouse by Tommy Lee)
  10. A warm place (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  11. Eraser (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  12. Reptile (Produced by Flood and Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder)
  13. The Downward Spiral (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixing Engineer: Alan Moulder. Drums by Andy Kubiszewski)
  14. Hurt (Produced by Trent Reznor. Mixed by Trent Reznor. Drums by Chris Vrenna)

History and message of the album

After Broken and Fixed, Reznor began work on this album, the idea for which he had had many years before. It chronicles a journey of self-destruction, and is a story. Those who intimate that Reznor's writing in the first person suggests that it is his own downward spiral are missing the point.

This album contains some of the most lyrically excellent of NIN's corpus of songs, and probably the most complicated halo to date. Every time I listen to it, I hear or realise something new.

During the so-called 'self destruct' era, 1994-1995, Nine Inch Nails released this album; March of the Pigs - a single; Closer to God - a collection of remixes of the song Closer; and Further Down the Spiral, the remix LP for this album.


The Downward Spiral comes in a cardboard slip, with a slim 'single' style jewel case for the CD and a separate lyrics and credits booklet.

The cardboard slip is adorned by an artwork of Russell Mills, who also produced the art inside the lyrics booklet. They seem to show a floor which gradually has more and more feathers and blood thrown onto it, representing the eventual death of the subject of this album.

The overall style of the packaging is minimalist, with blue lowercase type on a white background throughout the booklet. The CD itself despicts a stylised white spiral. US copies have the halo number printed on back of the outer slip, bottom centre. UK releases do not.

The songs

So as not to tread on Piter's toes, I have attempted to concentrate on the musical aspects of the songs, and any aspects of the lyrics I feel he has missed.

  • Mr. Self Destruct
    The album opens strongly with this heavy industrial song dominated by guitars and white noise. Its two quiter respites are both beautiful and effective in making the otherwise unrelenting sound even more oppressive. The 'outro' to this song is quite rightly very famous. I believe that the 'you' in the chorus mentioned by Piter is actually our 'hero', who is letting these things take over and eventually destroy his life.
  • Piggy
    Piggy has a much less intense sound, but builds up towards the end, as the drums take over, almost swallow the lyrics. The character of 'piggy' is a very interesting one who is pivotal to our hero's story.
  • Heresy
    Heresy opens with a pounding drum beat and a very distorted lead voice. The chorus ('Your god is dead and no one cares / if there is a hell I'll see you there') is very memorable, and suggests to us that the 'you' of this story ('piggy') has a faith in the Christian God.
  • March of the Pigs
    This fast, ranting song introduces our hero's destructive feelings and his feelings of rejection from society. The concept of 'pigs' is an interesting one. If 'piggy' is a Christian, it is possible that the pigs are Christians too. It could also just mean 'people like piggy'.
  • Closer
    Probably the album's most famous track, this 'dancey' track, with its samples of cars and slow drum beat, explores the hero's former relationship to 'piggy' some more. I believe that the lines 'You let me...' are in the past tense, telling us that 'piggy' no longer lets him do these things, hence his antagonism. The line 'I want to fuck you like an animal' is puzzling. These appear to be the words of someone who has not done such a thing, but it is clear from the first lines that he has. He appears to be totally dependent on 'piggy'. The final section, with its whispered lines and whiny outro, is rightly celebrated.
  • Ruiner
    Contrary to Piter, I believe that the first few lines of Ruiner still refer to 'Piggy', lending further credence to the fact that she has recently come to a belief in God: 'The ruiner's got a lot to prove he's got nothing to lose and now he made you believe / The ruiner's your only friend well he's the living end to the cattle he deceives.' Obviously however, the 'you' after this section is not 'piggy'. It seems that our subject also used to subscribe to the Christian faith: 'maybe it's a part of me you took it to a place I hoped it would never go / and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know.' This song, with its screamed chorus and fast drum beats and hi-hats, is a perfect depiction of our hero's rage against God.
  • The Becoming
    Probably my favourite lyrical track on the album, this has a fast, futuristic sound at the start which breaks down into a strong rhythm with sounds of screaming in the background. It depicts a man now totally separated from the rest of humanity. One has to wonder if this is the point of no return for him. The last two lines appear to point to some kind of mental illness haunting and hounding him until the end.
  • I do not want this
    For perhaps the first time in his journey, our 'hero' talks directly about his seemingly inevitable suicide. It appears that 'piggy' has tried to help him, but he has pushed her away: 'Don't tell me that you care / There really isn't anything now, is there?' The final lines are both disturbingly frank and easy to empathise with. The music builds up with them to move into Big Man with a Gun
  • Big Man with a Gun
    Once again building to a climax, this song seems to begin with our hero mocking rap music and its culture of violence and misogyny, or simply raging against violence and rape in general, and slowly realising that he has become exactly the same. The screams of 'me and my fucking gun' at the end of the song are very disturbing, and the beginning of 'A warm place' is a release.
  • A warm place
    My favourite track on the album. Through the music alone, it simultaneously conveys feelings of hope and overwhelming sadness. Sit back and enjoy the beauty.
  • Eraser
    Eraser begins with a long introduction, before the vocals return, with our hero apparently fantasizing about 'piggy'. However, he suddenly comes to a realisation that he has been rejected by 'piggy', and his rage increases as he shouts 'kill me' to the end of the track. Whether this shows that he longs for death, or whether it is short for 'You kill me' is unclear.
  • Reptile
    This song, with its memorable repetitive element composed of a chainsaw and the shutter action of a camera (yes, really), talks about our hero's continued ambivalence and rage toward 'piggy', and his own impurity. However, another source1 suggests that this song is telling the story of our hero's visit to a whore, and his disgust at her. I still think this is about piggy and how she has compromised herself, possibly to the ruiner.
  • The Downward Spiral
    The title track, with its haunting background reminiscent of a vast desert and apparently sampled from bees, appears to depict our hero actually committing suicide. It is my belief, however, that it is merely him toying with the idea. In either case, it is an excellent description of a suicidal person's feelings toward the action.
  • Hurt
    The final track has a similar background to the previous track, and is very much cut down. It sees our hero looking back on his life, and apparently threatening to carry out his act to make 'piggy' hurt. The line 'you could have it all' echoes Closer, but he now acknowledges that he has nothing to give. The final four lines and the music which drowns the last line seem to suggest that he finally commits suicide at the end of this song. This is backed up by the background afterwards, composed once again of bees.

My thoughts on the album

This is, without a doubt, my favourite album. The lyrics are complex, yet cathartic, and totally accurate to the feelings of one contemplating suicide. I am yet to find someone who has contemplated suicide who disagrees with the feelings expressed in this album, or one contemplating suicide who would not be helped by this album.

Those who say Reznor's music is angsty are missing the point. This is a story, written with a purpose, and should be read and listened to as such.

Additional reading:
James Salvatore & Brian Cancellieri. Music from the Underground - A Dissertation on The Downward Spiral.

Thanks to:
Trent Reznor

mortice's writeup is dead on, one-hundred percent, incredibly good
and I should probably leave this node alone. but that said, since
i've never been one for wisdom, sense or reason, here are a few
tidbits and takes. ^_^


The Downward Spiral has a couple themes that recur and thread through the songs.

One theme is sex. (5, 8, 9,12)
Another theme is God. (2, 3, 5, 6)
Another is self destruction. (1, 6, 7, 14)

Self-hatred and depression manifest as a driving, insidious urge to act out in self-destructive ways

("it won't give up, it wants me dead, and goddamn this noise inside my head" - the becoming)

that alternates with a desperate need to find a way to hold together in a disintegrating world,

("annie, hold a little tighter / I might just slip away" - the becoming)

the album describes a person trying to cling to sanity by escapes - through sex,

("you can have my isolation, you can have the hate that it brings ... you make me perfect, help me become somebody else" - closer)

and through drugs,

("the needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting" - hurt)

but like any escape, these provide only short relief, and the self is carried farther adrift.

("the me that you know is now made up of wires / and even when i'm right with you, i'm so far away" - the becoming)

Faith in God has been destroyed over the course of a perceived "a lifetime of fucking things up"

("god is dead / and no one cares / if there is a hell / i'll see you there" - heresy)

so there's no escape there, and the individual dives with renewed desperation into the abyss of escape once again

("need to contaminate to alleviate this loneliness" - reptile)

never quite seeing their fall as low enough to justify pulling the trigger.

(if you're thinking about it, don't. just don't.)

Only one song is directly about suicide1: #13
With an album so carefully conceived, is
it possible that that number, with all
its weighty christian baggage,
is a coincidence? *shrug*

Oh, hey, this lyric shows up a lot:
"nothing can stop me now"2

despair, detachment, disassociation
("hey pig / nothing's turning out the way i planned")

nothing can stop me now cause i don't care anymore

nothing left to hold on to
("and maybe that fucked me up much more than you'll ever know")

you didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me
you didn't hurt me, nothing can stop me now

out of control
big man with a gun
("i can reduce you if i want / i have the power")

me and my fucking gun
nothing can stop me now

1. my personal opinion is that the suicide described in the title track isn't carried through, at least in the "story" of the album - otherwise, who would narrate hurt? besides, like any good spiral (or pattern of self-degradation and escapism), it just goes in and down, in and down, if you can't trace it, you need a smaller pen
2. after writing this section, I found out that it's been noded in a similar way by uberfetus... and it might well be a better evaluation of the theme than mine. dammit ,-) Seriously tho, I recommend any of his writeups on this subject, from what I've seen.

random trivia about the album

Chris Heath, 1995, Details Magazine:

"Trent and Tori had become friends (he sang on her last album) and she would visit him at the Los Angeles house where The Downward Spiral was recorded. The house where Manson followers killed Sharon Tate. On one visit, Tori told a depressed Trent that she would whip him up a hearty homecooked meal. The cursed chicken. After six hours in the Tate house oven, it was still bloody and raw. Tori's preferred excuse: 'The spirits of the house wouldn't let it.' Eventually Trent left for another studio, where he ordered in. And the chicken? He shrugs. 'I didn't ask. The ghost ate it.'"
(...and now you know. The aforementioned singing on Tori's album refers, I believe, to the backup vocals on Past The Mission.)

Also from the same interview:

The second Nine Inch Nails record, the "Broken" mini album, was a nasty mixed-up splurge of unfocused hate and despair. Trent wanted his next record to be something more. He had discovered that the more he wrote about his depressions, the more it fed and encouraged them. "And," he tells me, "I'm wondering if all this negative energy is leading to a dead end. What is the ultimate solution to this? It's kill myself, I guess. Right?"

Maybe. But instead of doing it, he decided to chronicle the descent. It was to be a concept album called "The Downward Spiral." If there was a template in his head, it was the album which touched him most when he was youger: Pink Floyd's "The Wall". "The Downward Spiral," he says, "is about somebody discarding parts of themselves" -religion, love, caring about the opinion of others -"ultimately for self-realization." The bleakness builds to a crescendo with the title track. He simply set to music a suicide description which he wrote down when he was "really fucking utterly superdepressed" and then forgot about. "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. Problems have solutions. A lifetime of fucking things up fixed in one determined flash."

"I'm not saying this from a covering-my-ass point of view," he insists, "but I'd thought about it several times, and saying it almost demystifites it." He was not without secondhand experience. A friend had watched his girlfriend shoot herself. And then drummer Jeff Ward - who had taken over for the the Lollapalooza era, when Trent fell out with Chris - carbon-monoxided himself in a car because he couldn't quit heroin.

Album: The Downward Spiral
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Label: Nothing Records (TVT/Interscope)
Year: 1994
Rating: 5/5
Summary: A depressive masterpiece. Highly recommended.

Released after the noisy Broken EP and before the relatively clean album The Fragile, The Downward Spiral is arguably Nine Inch Nails's magnum opus. Inspired by David Bowie's Low and Pink Floyd's The Wall, it is an immensely depressing and presumably semi-autobiographical album that charts the descent of a fictional character.

Faced with losing the comfort of his religion, the album's protagonist plummets into a state of total despair. After trying unsuccessfully to find solace in his lover's embrace, which only serves to make him feel guilty about his desire for her, he starts to withdraw from the pain of the real world. In the end, he eventually realises his only escape is killing himself.

In keeping with the dramatic nature of this album, the music employs leitmotif. Similarly, various lines are repeated obsessively, as if the protagonist is trying to reassure himself of something he knows deep down to be a lie: firstly that "Nothing can stop me now because I don't care anymore," then "You didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me," which is finally replaced with the simple plead "Kill me."

As far as the music itself goes, Trent Reznor writes good tunes, but refuses to make them accessible. The odd catchy guitar riff is more than offset by a penchant for interesting time signatures, detuned instruments, harsh sounds, extreme dynamic ranges - often alternating between intimate whispers and shouting - and a frankly scary soundscape of decaying organic noise that disgusts you at first, but eventually grows on you with repeated listens.

The Downward Spiral is one of the few albums that has made me cry with empathy, during the cathartic release provided by the regressive instrumental piece A Warm Place, and is a beautiful work of art.

This album is possibly dangerous because it depicts total despair in a way that envelopes the listener like only music can. Despite this, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this masterpiece to anybody who knows what complete depression feels like. It is in a class of its own.

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