20 Years of Nine Inch Nails (Part 2)
By Karen on Thursday 8 October 2009, 18:51 - Permalink
Before delving into The Downward Spiral, there is one critically important thing concerning Broken that I forgot to mention last time (shame on me). Since the two bonus songs, Physical and Suck were so different in tone from the rest of the album, the CD version pushed those songs all the way back to tracks 98 and 99, meaning listeners had to skip through 90 blank tracks to get to them. The cassette version of Broken (which was the version I owned until the early '00's) dealt with this problem in a much more elegant way; all you had to do was flip the tape over. This means that NIN managed to produce an album where the cassette version was superior to the compact disc, a nigh-impossible feat.
I told you they were good.
The Downward Spiral
If you weren't paying much attention to rock in the '90s, a lot of it was like this.
Hole- Courtney Love's band- opened for NIN in the mid-90's, when NIN was touring in support of The Downward Spiral. Love later complained profusely about the debauchery she witnessed on that tour. General rule of thumb: When Courtney Love says that you should be conducting yourself with more decorum and restraint, maybe it's time to re-evaluate your lifestyle.
I can think of no better example of life imitating art than the whole TDS era of NIN. The initial plan for TDS was a kind of thought-experiment on Reznor's part; exaggerate his current problems to the nth degree, and write an album from the perspective of the character he believed he could become in that situation. It was an attempt to deal with the darkest aspects of human nature through art, without having to experience them directly. Fortunately for NIN's value to posterity, but unfortunately for Reznor personally, the narrator's descent into madness and finally self-destruction rang so true for the world at large that most people assumed that the album was (at least mostly) auto-biographical. While the album's themes of substance abuse and megalomania had not been an accurate reflection of his life up to that point, the assumption of millions that he was the person he had written about, added to the excesses of stardom and constant touring, made it hard to tell the difference.
If Reznor acted like a crazy rock star for a good long while (and he admits it), at least he created a record of proportional insanity. I hate it when rock stars think they can get away with the fun stuff and skip the crucial "art" and "suffering" stages. That's just rude.
Closer to Meaning
Okay, you want to know what The Downward Spiral REALLY means? The monkey died for our sins. Clearly.
The phenomenon that grew out of the saturation of the song Closer was unique. Out of context, the song sounds like a frat party anthem; the notoriously dirty chorus tends to grab most of the attention. In the larger context of The Downward Spiral, it's part of an incredibly desperate cry for help that eventually terminates with the narrator committing suicide during the title track. While the chorus can be interpreted as a celebration of nihilism, it's hard to find a "cool" interpretation for lines like "You can have my absence of faith" and "Help me get away from myself!" While most people were blown away by the fact that a commercial single had the word "fuck" in the chorus, the defining phrase of Closer is "Help Me"; it appears four times more often.
Of course, radio stations and MTV were not going to play the song straight out, so the radio edit notoriously contained a pregnant pause where the f-word should be. That edited version, which achieved such ubiquity in the mid-90s that it approached total media saturation, had the effect of making the song sound even more shocking than it actually was. With the word so obviously edited out, it tended to make you scream the word in your head involuntarily. The censorship had the odd effect of appearing to be holding back the brutal nature of the song, which only added to it's allure.
As a kid, I hated Closer; I was too young for TDS at the time, and all I could get out of the song was "Look how dirty this is, isn't this shocking!", and I was a precocious kid who resented that sort of thing. It was only many years later that I came to appreciate it. Lyrically, it's brilliant despite the chorus; the narrator is doing anything he can to stop himself from thinking, a plan where sex is just the latest in a long string of distractions. But he can't decide whether this is a good idea or not. Does abandoning reason and existing on a purely animal level really bring him "Closer to God?" Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? If people are at their most divine when they use their reason, why does running away from it feel like the right thing to do? Earlier in the album, within the song Heresy, Reznor quotes Nietzsche: "God is Dead." Which is really unfortunate, because God tends to be the one you want to answer this sort of thing.
At the end of the day, what is Closer? A celebration of casual sex, or a thinly veiled plea for the grace to believe in God again? Choose your poison.
Closer to Video
Whatever you're doing, you can be sure he disapproves.
For a brief period, the music video for Closer was the only music video admitted to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. I've heard that they recently added the video for Madonna's Bedtime Stories, also directed by Mark Romanek, which somewhat ruins the effect. Still, it's impressive.
Music videos, as a format, are very strange. Music is music: it doesn't NEED visuals. The institution of the music video has led to a profusion of songs that aren't much on their own, but make for good videos where a bunch of girls in skimpy costumes and body glitter can do some sort of gyrating rain-dance. Musicians without much talent for actual music have been able to ride the video format to fame, and for musicians who are more interested in the songwriting process, the necessity to make videos for every popular song is at best a distraction, and at worst a giant, expensive albatross hung around the neck. The format has also had the effect of screening out of the industry anyone who isn't physically attractive, which is backwards in a medium that should be dependent on how someone sounds, not how they look.
And then there's Romanek's Closer-ballsy, blasphemous, strange, slightly self-parodying, and above all, mesmerizing. In a "sexy" song, one would expect the usual procession of hot chicks parading around the lead singer like he's the best thing since cake; instead we get lizards, bugs, monkey crucifixion, a disembodied beating heart, and a vulnerable incarnation of Trent Reznor who looks like he must have needed to get a permission slip signed in order to appear in the video. While there is "adult content" in the video, as they say, the most adult aspects of it are those that the MTV version didn't have to censor; the little girl who appears throughout (whom we would like to believe is pre-sexual, but isn't), the metronome, the room full of incredulous old men in three-piece suits judging the proceedings, and so on. There's always been plenty of sexuality on display on MTV, but most of the time videos glamorize it; this is, if not the opposite, something different. There's no glamour here, just the inevitability of biology- like lizards laying eggs.
If the song is deceptive in that it sounds like it's about sex but is really about something else at its core, the video is about how most things tend to come back to sex on some level whether we like it or not.
The Bottom of the Spiral
I ended up writing far more about Closer than I originally intended, as opposed to the album as a whole. It's such a tempting subject though, and that's symptomatic of the fact that NIN is, on one level, a one-hit wonder. To many fans, NIN is Closer; they have no use for anything else. It dominates the conversation. If I had to pick one other feature of TDS that should warrant special attention (and for the purpose of brevity, let's pretend that I do), it's the fact that the narrator kills himself on the penultimate track, not the final one.
That's right; the narrator kills himself and the album isn't over yet.
Hurt, the final song, is in a different style than the rest of the album. While TDS is sonically a dense, multi-multi layered production, Hurt is mostly just Reznor and a keyboard. In an album that tends to turn traditional song structure upside down violently, the chorus of "What have I become, my sweetest friend" is heartfelt and clean, both lyrically and sonically. I think Hurt was a preview of what some of Reznor's work would sound like a decade later-- Right Where It Belongs could very nearly be passed off as a Peter Paul & Mary song, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Many people interpret Hurt as a song sung from the point of view of Reznor directly, as opposed to the exaggerated narrator of TDS. By this point, that megalomaniac has blown his head off and isn't around to get in the way. There may be no better end to an album than the way Hurt caps off TDS; after a loud, violent, theatrical self destruction, when the smoke has cleared, Reznor gets to say "Look, this concept album was an interesting experiment and all, but this is really me here. Please listen to me and don't repeat my mistakes." In a way, Hurt is darker than all of TDS: We know that it's only the narrator who died and not the man, but in the crushing sincerity of the album's post-mortem, we can't help but feel that he's not far behind his creation. The sense of loss is overpowering; Despite knowing that Trent Reznor is alive and well, I can't hear this song without a tinge of fear that the singer must already be dead.
Next time, some lighter fare with The Perfect Drug, and the rest of that whole weird period where no one was sure if NIN was going to put out another album or not.
Absinthe: When you're bored with all of the other drugs.