Looking Back on The Downward Spiral
POSTED ON 7/28/2006 | PERMALINK |0 Comments | BOOKMARK

I've been listening to TDS a lot lately. For the first time in years, I've been putting on my headphones and absorbing the controlled chaos of one of the least radio-ready albums ever to get radio play and sell a gazillion copies. I can't tell if I've just forgotten about certain elements or if I'm hearing certain sounds for the very first time. It's certainly not impossible that I'm still finding nuances in Reznor's highly detailed mesh.
Reznor was often compared, in those days, to alt-rock's undisputed heavyweight champion of angst, Kurt Cobain, but where Cobain's words were often chaotically imagistic and difficult to pin down, Reznor's were simple, unabashedly linear, and absolutely lacking in a single shred of hip ironic detachment.
Cobain makes for a good comparision. Cobain's death wasn't surprising. It was just sad. Reznor is fueled by his problems, while Cobain was destroyed by them.
Reznor's most pivotal topics, I determined, were power, and opposing it, absolute subjectivity. The Downward Spiral was obsessed with duality and control, but while the literal surface presented itself as a typical melodrama of beset masculinity, the contradictions to that reading came in waves. Reznor backed tearful vocals with the buzzing menace of devouring machines, or paired virulent resentment with a jazzy, soft-shoe rhythm, moving between silence and thunder with shattering digital precision, and leaving only a hair's breadth between a whisper and a scream. With its layer upon layer of almost literary sound, and constantly shifting foregroundings of literal and figurative sense, Reznor's noise never anesthetized, and as much as you were aching to respond to his gentle come-ons, he never let you forget that he was a dangerous, blood-letting animal.
Best of all? It was theater. If Reznor was St. Sebastian onstage, he was also the geeky computer genius with a long enough attention span to spend months cooking this shit up all by his lonesome. If he was a ferocious, screaming beast on his record, he was soft-spoken, articulate and thoughtful in interviews. In an era marked by entire rock shows of shoe-gazing gas station attendants and audiences who never looked at the stage, Reznor's high drama, pure competence, and sharply focused intention was like an oasis of cool, clear water in an endless desert of the bone dry earnest authenticity of virtuous, by-the-numbers guitar rock.
When TDS was released, I had already been making noisy sample-based music for some time, so I wasn't unfamiliar with the genre. But this album was an epiphany. And, while I definitely identified with the lyrics at the time, the sound and the fury were what hooked me. It sent shivers down my spine. And on occasion, it still does.

previously on WTG:

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