The Downward Spiral [Deluxe Edition]

8.3 out of 10

By Rob Mitchum for Pitchfork Media on November 29, 2004

You may have noticed that we here at Pitchfork HQ occasionally get excited about what we perceive to be the next new sound, be it in the form of an individual band or an entire newfangled genre. I myself am not above such occasional ballyhoo, most recently biting the hook hard on recently fashionable hyphenated mergers of electronics and rock, be it dance-punk or lap-pop or lance-ponk. I was completely convinced (and still am, to some extent) that guitars and computers were on the verge of ending their long, heated standoff, and that they would start making the hip new music of the future.

Well, among the many public services of the reissue is to remind us that there is usually nothing new under the musical sun, and so now, here's a 10th anniversary edition of The Downward Spiral to remind me that The Postal Service are just NIN in a better mood. When the album was first released, I wasn't concerned with any technological achievements Trent Reznor may have been conjuring-- I was too distracted by his concepts of fucking like animals, god being dead (and no one caring), and I am a big man yesIam. Sure, NIN might have provided a perfect dose of loud guitars and screaming to score my melodramatic years, but what most drew me to collect Halos was the atmosphere: fake snuff film videos, drummer microphone injuries, the Sharon Tate murder house, and lyrical self-mutilation that made Cobain sound like Vedder.

Now that I'm old, boring, and presumably less susceptible to the trappings of angst, it's possible to peel back that surface layer of fishnet and makeup and take a peek at the music underneath. And surprisingly, for music built on what I'm sure was cutting edge audio technology of the early 90s, The Downward Spiral sounds only the slightest bit aged, and not too far flung from the aggro-beats that still rule alt-rock formats. I'd even go so far as to affix Reznor with the clichรฉ label "ahead of his time," despite the decade's worth of Wax Trax! 12-inches that surely influenced him. Still, even with all that precedent, Reznor must've done something to usher industrial music into the mainstream.

My best guess is that Nine Inch Nails hit upon just the right amount of dance music content to gloss up his dire tunes without scaring off the homophobes. Reznor's dance leanings are constantly bubbling just under the surface of The Downward Spiral, and it nearly goes without saying that the breakout hit, "Closer", leaned a bit more obviously in that direction than most of the rest of the album. Easily the record's sexiest song and slinkiest beat, its disco thump still sounds markedly current. Meanwhile, "Heresy", for all its Nietzsche-inspired deicide, is a couple clicks of the distortion dial away from being a Depeche Mode song. And don't forget, "March of the Pigs" beat "Firestarter" to the digital hardcore punch by three years.

The B-side-filled second disc of this reissue assists this hindsight. Reznor was always fond of emphasizing clubby rhythms rather than tortured screams on his many, many self-remixes. I've always preferred "Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)" from the excellent Further Down the Spiral EP to the album version. The remix replaced the original's jazzy sparseness with a graveyard of broken breakbeats. "Closer to God" and "All the Pigs, All Lined Up" confirm two of my above appraisals of Downward Spiral album tracks. And for fuck's sake, there's even a cover of Soft Cell's "Memorabilia" to balance out the much-too-easy goth karaoke of "Dead Souls", the set's other homage.

Of course, The Downward Spiral wasn't just opening my early-teen eyes to the wonders of blasphemy and extended remixes, but also to the joy of the concept album-- in coordination with Melon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, 1994/5 was a bumper crop for thematic excess. Reznor might've gone off the art-rock deep end with The Fragile, an album I have absolutely no recollection of whatsoever, but The Downward Spiral still holds together, aided by a few musical reprises and its monochromatic lyrical content. Reznor had his album dynamics down pat at the time, chasing the brutal Gaspar Noe rape of "Big Man with a Gun" with "A Warm Place", the closest thing a teenager got to Eno in that era. Even the much-overrated "Hurt", which I didn't even like in the hands of a dying country singer, is a suitable post-storm calm.

That Reznor's chainsaw guitars haven't dulled after a decade of Stabbing Filter Manson knockoffs is gratifying, and that they still cut glass-- remastering or no-- is a credit to his production skills. With the benefit of Dolby 5.1 and SACD somethingorother, I'm sure the scream typhoons of "The Becoming" and the sedimentary synth layers of "Eraser" sound delightful on stereos I can't afford; (Best Buy wouldn't let me blast "Ruiner" in the demo room.) But even in obsolete stereophonic, the peekaboo drums of "Piggy" and the oscillating broken piano of "Closer" still impress.

Which is why it's a shame Reznor has largely been in seclusion since The Fragile shattered on impact. Since then, he's only emerged to restart old feuds and produce a terrible Zach de la Rocha single. Even if his songwriting talents flamed out after The Downward Spiral's extreme catharsis (how do you out-dread "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel?"), why has he been so selfish with his talents behind the board? While NIN remains in limbo, watered-down versions pollute the airwaves, hysterical critics forget that electronics and rock have met before, and only the occasional anniversary reissue reminds them that a Pennsylvania goth with a bad haircut was on to something underneath all the provocation.

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