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."