KEXP played Nine Inch Nails’ “March of the Pigs” earlier today and it occurred to me that I have not listened to The Downward Spiral in ages. Which is surprising, considering I used to play the hell out of my taped copy (and later the cd) of it in the mid-90s during my last couple of years in Boston. It was even part of my Belfry writing session playlist for a significant time. I’m sure the main reason I’ve been avoiding it is that it reminds me a little too much of a not-so-happy time in my life. Very broke, very depressed, and very desperate.
I mean, “Closer” was everywhere on MTV and the alternative radio stations for months after it came out. [And I’m 99% sure it was because us Gen Xers were proud of the fact we could get a song with “I want to f*** you like an animal” as a lyric on commercial radio. When in doubt and you want to shock, might as well go all the way, right?] Mind you, it’s actually a step back from NIN’s previous EPs from 1992 (Broken and Fixed), though not by much. All three were extremely nihilistic and pissed off, but Downward Spiral seemed to step back just a little bit from the brink to be just this side of listenable.
I remember having a conversation with my then-girlfriend (the one I co-wrote True Faith with) about this album, how deliberate its production and construction was. It started with unbridled anger and violence with “Mr. Self Destruct” and only going…well, downard from there. The album does have a sense of resolution by its finish, however dire. By the self-titled song (the next to last track) the main focus is desperation and nihilism laid bare…followed by the damaged ascendance of “Hurt” as its final track. We’re not sure if the main character (so to speak) has reached the point of suicide or relief — or both — but it’s certain that the pain has finally gone away, one way or another.
I never got around to seeing Nine Inch Nails live except that one time, back in late 1989 when I won tickets to see them on Landsdowne Street in Boston, before their fame skyrocketed to arenas and music festivals. But by the mid-90s I was far too broke to go see any bands other than the free shows on the Hatch Shell anyway, so I made do with the music I could get cheaply. I followed the band’s progress through the years as I could, but I don’t think I quite connected with them as closely as I did with Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.
I don’t remember the last time I actively gave this album a full spin, to tell the truth. I remember playing it in the stock room at HMV and in the Belfry when I was deep in writing The Phoenix Effect, but I rarely played it after that. It just struck a little too close to home.
I keep meaning to give it another play one of these days, now that time and age have intervened and the traumas of those years has faded, no longer equating those songs with personal and emotional hells. I can appreciate it as a fan and a listener and audiophile and not just a low chapter in my life.