Trent Reznor’s psychological thriller turned 25 this month
It’s fitting that one of the 1990s’ deepest dives into the artist’s psyche was recorded in the same house where the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate and four others nearly a quarter-century earlier. The history of the Tate house fascinated Trent Reznor, the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails—it was a real-life horror story, one he could physically walk through.
He rented the house and prepared it for recording, building a studio in the process that he called “Le Pig” as a nod to the phrase that Manson’s followers scrawled on the walls before leaving the murder scene. Between 1992 and 1993, Reznor worked diligently inside Le Pig, writing lyrics and tweaking sound samples as he constructed what is now considered one of the most influential artistic statements of the 1990s. And Tate’s sister, Patti, found the whole thing disturbing.
In a 1997 interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone, Reznor appeared humbled and embarrassed by Patti Tate questioning his intentions for using the infamous space as a studio. “When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’ I thought, ‘Fuck Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit,” he said.
The Downward Spiral isn’t about the Manson murders, anyway. Released in March 1994 on Nothing Records and Interscope Records, the second studio album by Nine Inch Nails was unsettling enough without factoring in the gruesome history of its recording location—and despite later accusations that some of The Downward Spiral’s lyrics influenced one of the Columbine shooters and criticism of the lyrical violence in the single “Closer,” the album was a quick critical and commercial success. Just a week before The Downward Spiral’s release, the 36th Annual Grammy Awards named Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as its Record of the Year and distributed awards to an eclectic list of artists in the rock and pop categories that included Ozzy Osbourne, Meat Loaf and Sting. At the same time, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” was climbing the charts after its 1993 release and the world was still enjoying the antihero antics of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, though not for much longer.
Reznor dropped The Downward Spiral into this strange musical landscape, certain it would ostracize more listeners than it would attract. He was wrong. Several years into the grunge movement and surrounded by the burgeoning rap scene, listeners were ready to tackle the psychological dilemmas presented on the collection of drum loops, threatening whispers and desperate screams that Reznor wove together alongside co-producer Mark “Flood” Ellis. The album climbed to no. 2 on The Billboard 200 and was certified quadruple platinum by The Recording Industry Association of America—and, 25 years later, it remains Nine Inch Nails’ most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album to date.
Looking back on this record, there’s a lot of information available now that paints a clearer picture of Reznor’s artistic state of mind than what 1994’s critics had at their disposal. Written in the wake of Nine Inch Nails’ performance at Lollapalooza’s inaugural summer tour in 1991, The Downward Spiral is a direct result of the depression Reznor was experiencing at that time. The album’s lyrics read like the soliloquy of someone trying to claw their way out of the sinkhole that depression often becomes—attempts to stop spinning out of control and find solid ground. From the clear theme of opening track “Mr. Self Destruct” to the lyrics in “Piggy” (“Nothing can stop me now / ’Cause I don’t care anymore”) and “Heresy” (“God is dead / And no one cares / If there is a hell / I’ll see you there”), the album’s first three songs set the tone for the 11 that follow. Psychological struggle remains a persistent theme, with the lyric “Nothing can stop me now” popping up again in “Ruiner” and in a slightly altered form (“I never can stop me now”) in “Big Man with a Gun.”
As the album progresses, Reznor experiments with drum loops and sound samples that range from a beating scene in George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138 to the sound of a woman falling in 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, all of which Reznor manipulated in the studio. Nine Inch Nails’ best-known song “Closer,” which was inspired in part by—and used a sample from—Iggy Pop’s 1977 song “Nightclubbing,” stands as a disco-esque contrast to this sonic chaos, somehow serving as the album’s most mainstream option despite the criticism it received for the violence in its lyrics and music video. By the album’s end, the trauma Reznor explores doesn’t come to a happy conclusion—though there’s a slight break for the gentle, lyric-free “A Warm Place,” the album closes in surrender with “Hurt” as Reznor sings about embracing pain and wishing for another chance–a sentiment Johnny Cash would later claim as his own before his death with the Man in Black’s own haunting version of the single.
Taken as a whole, The Downward Spiral is a prime example of aggressive and sonically-creative industrial rock, a decisive step onto the path Reznor wanted his career to follow and one he’s repeatedly said he’s glad to have taken. Nine Inch Nails fans were glad, too—perhaps more so than Reznor would have wanted. The Downward Spiral put Nine Inch Nails on music’s main stage and made Trent Reznor a household name, providing him with the success and acclaim that helped him and Nine Inch Nails continue rising in the years that followed. At the same time, the fame and expectations worsened his struggle with depression and reliance on alcohol and drugs until he overcame substance abuse in the early 2000s.
It’s odd to compare one of the ’90s top albums with those recorded a few decades prior, which tended to tackle issues in a much lighter and more upbeat way. Happy-go-lucky music existed in the ’90s, of course, but the same cannot be said about Reznor’s lyrical themes during the 1950s and 1960s, at least not where popular music was concerned. The Downward Spiral sinks into the kinds of difficult questions that anyone who’s experienced depression can understand; questions of self-worth, personal responsibility and cause and effect. The music Reznor created and continues to create after 1994 is a vote of confidence in The Downward Spiral’s protagonist and anyone who relates to the music—they’re not alone in their feelings of desperation, and there is a way out. In another twist of irony, it is perhaps Reznor’s lyrics in “I Do Not Want This” that best sums up his experience with the album: “And maybe I don’t have a choice / And maybe that is all I have / And maybe this is a cry for help / I do not want this.” Even so, Reznor adds to the end of the song a note of hope and aspiration: “I want to do something that matters.”