London-based writer Adam Steiner spoke with 360°Sound about his book Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral (out now on Backbeat Books). Into The Never is Steiner’s second book. He also wrote the novel Politics of the Asylum (Urbane Publications).
Released in 1994, The Downward Spiral is the second LP from the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails. A critical and commercial success, The Downward Spiral helped make frontman and principal songwriter Trent Reznor one of the biggest rock stars of the ‘90s. The highly influential concept album is credited with bringing industrial music, an aggressive fusion of hard rock and electronica, to the masses. “Closer,” the album’s second single and NIN’s best-known song, featured a controversial music video that received heavy airplay on MTV.
360°: Please start by telling us why you chose this album to write a book on.
Adam Steiner: The Downward Spiral is one of the most challenging and sonically interesting records I’ve ever heard, and there is so much to say about it, so much to explore that, to my mind, was still unwritten 25 years after it was released, that I almost felt compelled to write the book. There is nothing quite like it.
I was made in 1985, so I was too late for the release of Spiral, but about right for when The Fragile came out in 1999. Looking back from the end of the millennium Spiral can seem archaic, although it didn’t really sit within any genre, and that’s one of the things that appeals to me the most about it. It’s like a bizarre artifact from another age, and yet still very human for all of that.
The Fragile is a great record in its own right but it is so distant from Spiral in style, even though it approaches similar themes – it’s a striking progression. That sense of difference is part of what makes Trent Reznor a great musician and artist, he’s revisited things, but he doesn’t churn copies and just make The Downward Spiral Mark II. Shoot me, but even though Reznor has made lots of other music that I love, I kind of feel he never touched the same artistic heights (at the cost of personal lows). The album is a unique experiment and stands apart within the whole NIN discography; it’s like a wild experiment, impossible to repeat.
It’s notable that such a dark, abrasive record was a massive seller. What do you think it was about The Downward Spiral that resonated with listeners?
It’s exactly because The Downward Spiral engages with those darker, self-alienating, and painful feelings that it resonated so widely across the world. Those feelings remain common for each generation, particularly in the eternal cry of teenage youth; it is the perennial challenge of trying to realize what you are and who you want to be in the world.
I think, controversially with some fans, I find certain lyrics on the album positively teenage, but they do reflect many of the growing pains which endure into our adulthood. We carry them with us as emotional scars, and sometimes these formative experiences become the cause of further mental health or addiction issues down the line, as submerged trauma is self-medicated in harmful ways. Daphne Carr’s excellent 33 1/3 book on [NIN’s debut album] Pretty Hate Machine covers this very well. So many fans have said they feel their own experiences reflected in the songs, both in the expression of the lyrics but also the intense sensations that the music drives into you: the emotional fatigue and resentment of “Piggy,” the blast of anger in “Mr. Self Destruct,” and the freaky-sexy lurch of “Closer” – these are all very real struggles that many of us experience throughout our adult lives.
I think Reznor also provided an authentic and sincere voice compared to heteronomy of ‘90s pop – which was so much about flirt with the fellas/gotta get the girl. That’s fine, to a point, but it was a plastic expression of how people really live their lives, the extreme ups and downs that get thrown at us, or we create for ourselves. So Reznor ripped off the mask and showed the guts of the matter underneath – life as a naked lunch.
It’s interesting to note that he often wrote lyrics from diary entries, and with Spiral, he was bringing up stuff from his childhood, his earlier years in the music industry. For such a relatively young man, not even 30 at the time, he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders – like we all do.
How would you characterize the concept and narrator of the album?
My take on the overarching concept of the album, much like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, follows an individual, call them the album’s narrator, who spirals into a well of depression, self-loathing and alienation. As they experience a breakdown of the fundamental pillars of their life – religion, relationships, optimism for the future – they become less human and withdraw into a nihilistic headspace where the real, external world has ceased to matter. I tried to make this theory of the album – as a “revolution in the head” – as accommodating and factually-based upon the content of the album and interviews with Reznor. My angle is not so sharp or narrow that I would claim for it to be the definitive take.
What’s your favorite track?
I have to say “Ruiner,” one of the more commercial, song-focused tracks. It’s instantly accessible and a really dynamic take on self-loathing as stamping down on negative feelings, whether they are sparked by other people – “the ruiners” – or it’s another voice in your head, so the ruiner becomes you.
Reznor layered so many interesting elements together, some wild tape-screech samples, a burbling sequencer, the crashing drum loop, throbbing bass, and an excellent choral part that backs up the pre-chorus. It’s a song about harsh realizations where nothing is quite as it seems and perhaps the people you trusted, loved or depended on can be the ones that let you down the most, whether that is an absence of faith in god or a broken relationship. A real monster of a song pieced together from two tracks with a lacerating guitar solo – it shouldn’t work but it does.
What do you find to be the key themes of the album?
It’s varied. I think there are implicit things that come through the mood and expression of the record, such as mental health, social control, and the struggle to be in the world when you feel it has no meaning. The more intense, rockier songs such as “Heresy,” “Closer,” and “Ruiner,” use a verse-chorus structure and the first half the album follows this mood of intensity and acceleration, whereas the second half feels more deflated. The menace is still there but subdued. These songs are perhaps more experimental and fragmented in their meaning. There are moments of clarity, but I think the second half vocalizes the experience of a mind falling apart. The album also touches upon broader themes, such as gun control, sexual politics, and the hypocrisy of organized religion.
What’s the legacy of The Downward Spiral over 25 years later?
It’s a record that Reznor can never entirely move on from. It was an artistic gamble based upon his untapped potential as a musician and innovator, and it took NIN to a whole new commercial and artistic level that they’ve never really hit again. But they’re still producing great records.
As an album, I think The Downward Spiral is utterly unique, it never sounds dated, it’s not tied to the culture from which it emerged with direct references to places, people, and historicism. So it’s quite timeless and universal. It deals with big themes, but from the perspective of an individual, and the fact that Reznor made that meaningful and relatable to so many different people is a lasting achievement.