closer to god: revisiting the 90s with nine inch nails

The first album I ever purchased that featured the now infamous “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” sticker on it was a cassette copy of The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. It was the fall of 1994—I was eleven years old. Eleven is obviously WAY too young to even comprehend the concept behind and the music found on The Downward Spiral, but like many people of my age, I grew up in the last generation where MTV played music videos.

In August, Woodstock ’94 was held—an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock. This festival was heavily commercialized; complete with corporate sponsors, and an unrelenting MTV presence—much of the festival was broadcast on the network—including the legendary performance by Green Day, where giant clumps of mud were thrown at the stage. One of the breakthrough acts to garner more mainstream attention from the event, and subsequent broadcasting of their performances, was Nine Inch Nails—standing menacingly on stage while completely covered in mud, destroying their equipment by pouring bottles of water onto their keyboards.

My real interest in Nine Inch Nails, in my eleventh year, was the song “Closer”—considered probably be their most iconic song. The utterly disturbing video, while heavily censored, received a fair amount of airplay that summer on MTV, and I was intrigued by the strange imagery of the video, as well as song itself—creeping funk, overly sexual, self deprecating lyrics, and those chilling piano notes descending at the end.

I don’t remember the name of the record store that I purchased the tape at—it was in a shopping mall that I had never been to before, and have not been to since. It was in a town I cannot recall, although I remember it being a lot farther away from home than I was used to traveling. This trip to the record store also saw me purchasing the cassette single for the Beastie Boys hit song “Sabotage”—that tape also had the Advisory Lyrics sticker slapped on the sleeve. I remember clutching both cassettes, nervously approaching my mother, and asking her if it was okay if I bought them. And I remember her taking a moment, and then saying, “Yeah that’s fine. Just don’t tell your father.”

To say I was “not ready” for what I heard when I put The Downward Spiral cassette into my Talkboy tape player is an understatement.  The album opens with a sample from the movie THX 1138, of a man being beaten by a prison guard, which then abruptly ends and the first song, “Mr. Self-Destruct” angrily begins.

It wasn’t really until 1997’s OK Computer that I learned to appreciate a record all the way through. As a kid, I was more of a “hits” listener—with compact discs, I would often just use the “program” function, select the singles I was aware of, and hit play.  With cassettes, it was a little harder. “Closer” is the fifth song on The Downward Spiral, meaning I had to uncomfortably listen to four songs before it arrived.

The Downward Spiral was an album I only listened to with headphones on, for fear of getting in trouble due to the content—the profanity for sure, but then there’s the subject matter: drug abuse, attempted suicide, violence, self-destruction, sexuality, and nihilism. The lyric in “Hersey”—“Your god is dead, and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.” made me extra nervous, since I was a sixth grader at a Catholic school.

What I can’t recall now, since it has been so many years, is the waxing and waning interest in Nine Inch Nails that occurred between, say, 1996 and 1999.

In 1999, I was a junior in high school. In September, the much delayed and anticipated follow up to The Downward Spiral was released. After school got out, I drove my inherited old mini-van to Shop Ko, and I plunked down my hard-earned money for the double album The Fragile.

By this point, I was a little less hit-oriented when it came to listening to music.  Clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, give or take, The Fragile was, and actually still is, a very dense listening experience. The album itself sold well in the first week of release (debuting at number one) but then fell quickly down the charts. The impression, overall, was that it was well received by critics, but that it felt less immediate than its predecessor. As a teen, I remember preferring the “left” disc (disc one) to that of the “right” disc (disc two.)

At sixteen, I was also less concerned about being “found out” about having records with Advisory Lyric stickers and questionable content. The Fragile, while filled with profanity, it is a much less angry affair overall—gone is the nihilism and violence; replaced with what some critics and listeners wrote off as “melodramatic” lyrics.

Again, looking back now, I cannot recall at what point, heading into young adulthood, it was that I lost interest in Nine Inch Nails. I presume it was at some point after my first year in college. And from there, until very recently, my interest remained misplaced.

It was in thinking of the lyrics to the opening song off of The Fragile, “Somewhat Damaged,” that even made me think to really revisit these records as an adult. And in thinking about revisiting them, I was not really sure what to expect—would it just be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, or would I find that these were records I shouldn’t have written out of my life so early on?

In today’s market, it was very easy to track down inexpensive used copies of both The Fragile and The Downward Spiral on compact disc. As soon as my envelope from the Amazon Marketplace seller arrived, upon opening it, the trip down memory lane began. I had forgotten how elaborate the packaging for each album was.

The Fragile comes in a bulky six panel digipak, the discs separated to either side, and in the center, the track list, and liner notes that slide out from underneath.  Then there’s the iconic packaging and artwork for The Downward Spiral. I remember the wear and tear my cassette copy was put through in 1994—eventually I shed the outer cardboard sleeve completely, for it did not fit properly in the rack that held all my tapes. The compact disc version is enclosed within a cardboard sleeve—within said sleeve are the liner notes, and the disc itself in a slim jewel case.

 The Fragile was the first record I revisited. As I mentioned earlier, it was the opening song of disc one that sent me on this musical trip back in time. There were a few sensations that came up during my initial listen—the first; it was like picking up a conversation with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time. I instantly remembered a lot of things that I had forgotten, and it put me back in places I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

The second sensation though, was that I felt a little out of place listening to a Nine Inch Nails record at this point in my life—or, at this point in my life, a Nine Inch Nails record felt a little out of place being listened to by me.  What I mean by that is, at 29, “heavy” or “aggressive” music like this is not something I’ve taken with me as I’ve grown—much of it was left behind over a decade ago. So in listening, I felt like there was some kind of barrier preventing me from enjoying this now, as opposed to when I was sixteen.

While there are moments of aggression, in contrast to The Downward Sprial, this is a relatively introspective record, and as a whole, time has been relatively kind to The Fragile. In interviews, Trent Reznor has said that he felt that at the time of its release, he thought everybody hated it. But now, like 14 years later, it is everybody’s favorite. Written at the height of Reznor’s substance abuse and resulting depression, there are moments that still work, and work well—like the album opener “Somewhat Damaged,” the incredible instrumental track “La Mer,” and the “Closer”-esque funk of “Into The Void” holds up. Upon this listen, I was more aware of the melodramatic lyrical tendencies that it was criticized for; specifically in the title track, and the big single “We’re in This Together.” And the Marilyn Manson diss-track, “Starfuckers, Inc” is still just as lame as it was in 1999.

And then there’s The Downward Spiral. Nearly pushing 20 years, time has not been as kind to this record. Sure, the opening juxtaposition of the beating sample into the jarring first moments of “Mr. Self-Destruct” are still unsettling to hear. And sure, the additional percussive hits during the final moments of “Piggy” are awesome, and give the mostly reserved song an interesting ending. And yes, the instrumentals—“A Warm Place” and the first half of the title track—are a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the album. And oh sure, it’s an interesting to hear “Hurt” in its original form, and remember that it’s not a Johnny Cash original.
But there are some fairly cringe-worthy moments throughout The Downward Spiral. Musically, it can be very dated at times—this was, after all, the 2nd full length effort that Nine Inch Nails released, coming five years after 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine (a hot mess of gothy synth pop), and then 1992’s Broken EP, where you can begin to see the transition out of gothy synth pop into more aggressive industrial territory. But man, some of the beats and keyboard tracks on this thing sound kind of silly now—specifically on “Hersey.” And that line about god being dead, and no one caring—a lot less controversial to my ears 19 years later. It’s almost laughable to hear now. And I completely forgot about the strange “robot powering up” sound that is involved in the beat for “Reptile.”
Even the hit single that propelled Nine Inch Nails to fame, “Closer,” hasn’t aged that well. The misunderstood, now anthemic line “I want to fuck you like an animal” is pretty ridiculous to hear, and even more ridiculous to think how shocking it all was in 1994. I will say that the ending of “Closer” is still incredible—starting at around 4:26 into the song, the final two minutes and change just continue to build and build until you are left with nothing but those chilling piano notes, hanging in the air.

Much like the final moments of shrill guitar feedback that end The Downward Spiral, this trip down musical memory lane came to and end. And aside from basking in the fun glow of nostalgia, what did I take away from this experience? While I would stop short of saying I was “right” to wipe away Nine Inch Nails from my musical palate so long ago, I would say that it’s kind of acceptable that I did so.
Even though Trent Reznor disbanded Nine Inch Nails as an active project in 2009 (now claiming, however, that he is writing new material for it)—there are always going to be angsty, misunderstood teenagers, therefore there will always be a market for music like this. It’s music that is not terrible to listen to now, as a curmudgeonly adult, but it’s not something that I could have seen growing with me over the last thirteen or fourteen years.
I also found through the course of listening to both of these records, I was much kinder to The Fragile and that I found myself having more of an attachment to it. Perhaps that is because I was 16 when it came out—angsty and misunderstood—and listened to it countless times in my room with headphones on, or in my mini-van, driving around my hometown.
Perhaps what is keeping me from some kind of positive, nostalgic attachment to The Downward Spiral is that maybe, eighteen years later, part of me is still that kid who nervously paid for his first tape with an Advisory Lyrics sticker, placed it in the cassette deck, and was completely unprepared for what happened next.