So much of The Downward Spiral deals with things falling apart. Across the album we witness the narrator’s decline in slow-motion, powerless to stop the downward trend. As he loses control the songs become darker in tone but also more broken and diffracted in style and substance, this kaleidoscopic effect presenting the various aspects of the spiral’s descent. 

[This blog post is extracted from my book –  Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]


Ruiner is perhaps one of the album’s most pessimistic songs, it presents an unwinnable war with the Ruiner character, or ‘voice’, but it also expresses the narrator’s will of resistance, caught in a seemingly struggle with himself. 

The song begins quietly with the narrator examining the Ruiner from an awe-struck distance. Admired as a Nietzschean ‘noble’ higher being, the Ruiner rules by a force of character that both inspires and intimidates others. The narrator appears to be held in its thrall, its destructive and domineering powers conjure up the Icarus-style position of flying too close to the sun as a sublime object of fascination, only to get burned and be destroyed in the attempt.

A Pet Shop Boys-style sequencer line burbles through but is quickly pushed aside by a propulsive drumbeat, the thudding kick drum banging on the door of the mind, then a fierce, thrashing breakbeat loop crashes in, wrestling to hold itself together as the narrator rants accusations behind a haze of distortion. 


Clarity returns when the music collapses and rises-up again in a chorus of massed voices, forming a wall of light standing behind the vocals. This is reminiscent of Albert Speer’s use of upturned searchlights as epic staging behind Adolf Hitler’s speeches, the song’s totalitarian aesthetic places the Ruiner as epic figurehead. Reznor’s use of sonic scale makes the relatively flat, almost drawled delivery of the chorus lyrics all the more resonant, left to hang in the air and drag at the ear.

Click to learn more about Nazi rallies and The Lion King – https://www.businessinsider.com/the-lion-king-be-prepared-nazi-film-2014


An article by Kevin Mooseles for The Escapist website [2014], offers a track-by-track explanation of how the Fight Club movie can be watched running alongside The Downward Spiral. He connects the Ruiner figure in the song with the character of Tyler Durden; the id-gone-wild personality, whose success comes from bettering and besting others. Reznor sings of phallic imagery, a reminder of the album’s shifting and peeling skins using open vowel stresses ‘big/strong/hard/long’, that reflects the Ruiner/Durden’s sexual prowess that inspires penis envy among males [and the abused ‘femme-fatale’ character of Marla Singer], sharpening the sexual inadequacy of the film’s protagonist.



Reznor invokes the religious language of covetousness, one of the ten commandments: the Ruiner wants what the other has as his own, perhaps for its own sake and to deny others. But in the narrator’s jilted admiration of the Ruiner, and his own growing megalomania, he in turn becomes the coveter. The Ruiner is referred to as a collector – as if a harvester of souls, these followers are the flies drawn to his shit – as much as a spectator, or voyeur of the loss of innocence. Reznor returned to this idea on The Collector from the With Teeth album [2005], singing of swallowing, and being swallowed, swarms clogging and choking orifices, as when the narrator’s voice is smothered.

[ See the lyrics for The Collector from 2005’s With Teeth as a revisitation of Ruiner and its core themes – https://genius.com/Nine-inch-nails-the-collector-lyrics ]

The Ruiner’s ability to be destructive, yet still admired, marks him as a form of charismatic dictator, driving the narrator’s desire to please or even to become the Ruiner and adopt his hyper-masculine power. Reznor identifies this attraction as a source of bondage, no matter where the narrator goes [in his mind] its influence will poison anything positive in his life, and still the narrator pursues it.


Ruiner might offer a moment in which Reznor steps back and sees his own Ruiner persona overcoming him, forced to confront this imagined self-image and taking responsibility for his own agency as both masochistic victim and self-destructive force. But this realisation is too mentally disruptive and becomes untenable, and the division shatters, leaving Reznor, as with the narrator, a splintered, constantly refracting and shifting sense of self, becoming one with the Ruiner.

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion [1965]

The song breaks mid-way and descends into a languid and furiously fuzzed-up guitar solo that is perhaps as standard rock as the album gets. The guitar’s restrained feedback continues to wail then fall away into metal joints shrieking and grinding in the background, bending and lurching forwards and back at the listener. Talking about the solo to Musician magazine Reznor said it was “ultra-quantized”, bent into hard right angles, a Pink Floyd-esque effect he stumbled onto through a Zoom pedal preset:  “I think I accidentally called up the wrong patch. I’m not a soloist. I was just laughing when I was playing with this ridiculous sound […] I later realized that I basically tried to play a Comfortably Numb-type solo. I played the song for Chris, our drummer, and I was thinking, ‘He’s going to start laughing. It’s silly.’ But he goes, ‘Man, that guitar section was fucking great.’”


Reznor has said Ruiner was “the hardest song to write” in a 1994 interview. “I still don’t know if I got it right. I have such a bad vibe from that song now – from it sucking in so many different ways. It was actually two different songs stuck together.” You can hear this in the break between the verse and chorus, Ruiner is itself a track born out of, and about, fragmentation, inner division and the attempt to make the self whole again, but it becomes a reconciliation with one’s ‘greater’ nature of selfishness and the lust for power, shown to be the greatest weakness. 

Reznor’s comment points to the risk of overworking material, struggling to critically distance himself enough to let go of the work, where the process of repair or trying too hard to make something work can overwhelm the benefit of its results. But Ruiner is a powerful musical and lyrical example of how power, ambition and ego can corrupt, it may be that the song is actually a fantastic failure, but is all the better for it.

“This entire confession has meant nothing…” – Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho [2000]

The imagery of Ruiner is driven by compulsion and infection, there is a sense of overreaching to the point of obsession as the narrator’s hunger and ambition to become a ‘better’ version of himself overcomes his selfhood. The Ruiner has dragged him to a darker place within himself, and in effect consumed and destroyed him, though the narrator might feel his resolve has been strengthened in this, he comes to the realisation that the only self-knowledge he has gained is in confronting the most negative and ruinous aspects of his personality and behaviours; it is a hollow victory, that quickly sours to become defeat. In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias [1818] a traveller wandering through an “antique land” discovers a great statue of a once powerful and proud ruler, now ruined and half-buried in the sand, the inscription on it reads: 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

[RUINER (Version) available from the Further Down The Spiral UK import]

[This blog post is extracted from my book –  Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]



  1. I was looking for something that talks about the depth of this song and came across this.
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and agree with your take. Some of the references I will need to read up on and that’s a good thing. The entire album and its themes have stayed with me since I first listened to it as a 16yo. I’ve lost so many of my favorite people over time and I’m always brought back to this one album when I try to rationalize or even understand why.
    Anyway, glad I came across this and best of luck!

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