“Have you personally reached the kind of absolute low described on the album’s final track, Hurt? The one that opens with, ‘I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel’?”
“Huh…yeah. I’ve reached it…”
[Trent Reznor, Kerrang Interview, 1994]
In the above interview, the journalist noted that Reznor never fully answered the question, his words trail off, his thoughts and long stare are lost in the distance. This stands as a metaphor for both the song and the album The Downward Spiral, an emotional vanishing point, seeming without end, that threatened to swallow its creator whole.
Trent Reznor on Netflix “Song Exploder” – the making of ‘Hurt’
Hurt has recently been the subject of a detailed song-writing analysis in the Song Exploder documentary on Netflix, as well as being famously covered by Johnny Cash – giving the song a life of its own beyond its author that would help to break The Downward Spiral album into the mainstream. The blurb for the show describes the episode: Broken-down sounds, damaged vocals and naked emotion make a chilling coda to a blockbuster LP as Trent Reznor talks about transforming pain into art.
In the documentary Reznor would describe the arc of The Downward Spiral as “someone trying to find salvation through sex and drugs, self-destruction and self-loathing.” Hurt was intended to break some of that negative cycle and provide some kind of resolution to seemingly impossible and hopeless situation.
The fact that Hurt remains in popular discussion and is still played as an encore in many Nine Inch Nails shows reflects its cultural and artistic value – even to people who are not NIN fans.
[This blog post is extracted from my book – Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL MOTIF
Hurt is a great example of solid song-writing; deceptively simple, it features the same “The Downward Spiral riff” a short guitar figure that acts as a recurring motif across the album, providing musical continuity alongside the repeated “Nothing Can Stop Me Now” lyric.
Reznor’s empathy towards the damaged people among his audience is reflected musically, the song’s spare and brittle guitar line develops into delicate piano, slipping in and out of tune; everything is slightly off as notes are bent, disfigured, bearing their wounds. on Song Exploder Reznor explains that he initially demoed the song on piano, but to avoid it becoming another piano ballad he made the guitar wavering and remote, like a found object that emerged from the rubble, as broken and damaged as the album’s main character.
The track builds with the pre-chorus, fortified by the resolve that Reznor summons into his vocal and the big wash of the kick drum and electric drum bang away to become the resilient beating heart of the song. What sounds like a cello edges-in and the descending piano line carry the listener off – this rare act of whispering not shouting rewards the listener who has journeyed through the torment of the album.
Reznor explains how he threw a violin into an infinite reverb generator, creating a single drone that manages to sound like a synth and bagpipes at the same time (he would perform a similar track on The Social Network’s “Hand On Bruise”). This naive and fragile texture allowed the listener to rise up from being “trapped underwater” and finally allows the track to breathe.
In isolation, Hurt throws us off the main narrative of Spiral, assuming the closure of the album instead of its title track. It seems to focus on the aftermath of the singer/narrator’s death; leaving ambiguity of whether it was suicide or murder in its wake. In this sense, Hurt becomes the words of a lost epitaph (a suicide note?) that never was, a voice speaking to us about their life, after the fact.
Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2004, Rick Rubin (who produced the Johnny Cash cover of Hurt) noted the contradiction in the first two lines at the beginning of the song; the idea of self-harm, emotional or physical, as both distraction and reckoner. This brings forth the sensation that existence that hinges upon feeling, an experience that so often leads to pain and suffering, which has become the dominant emotional struggle in the narrator’s life. In other lines Hurt returns us to the album’s absolute states of isolation, decay and desolation:
“I wear this crown of shit
Upon my liars chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair“
Reznor spoke to Ray Gun magazine in June 1994, alluding to Hurt: “At the end of this record, there’s one last song that’d been kinda floatin’ around that I ended up recording, kinda not knowing if it was too naked to go on that record. So I just put it on the record and I thought it made a nice ending to a gloomy little song before I kill myself, so I figured, ‘Well, this’ll be my kind of regret song.’ When it got done, I really was proud of it – it’s probably one that I’m most proud of on that record.” Reznor felt the significance of the song and how its intimate delivery might resonate with a wider audience more immediately than other tracks on the album.
Where suicide might have seemed the inevitable conclusion to the album, in concept, theme and narrative, particularly the suicide-cum-murder fantasy of the title track, Hurt is an attempt to subvert the assumed narrative Reznor had followed, to show that suicide was not a certainty. Reznor acknowledged Hurt as counterweight to the music that had gone before it and as something of cathartic release for himself speaking to NME in 1994:
“I think it at least a slightly positive thing, as opposed to, you know, my head’s blown off and I’m bleeding on the carpet.”
Reznor had his doubts about Hurt, conscious that even though it is not explicitly about suicide, perhaps a death revisited, it might still allow people to wallow in its mood long enough to fantasise about their own passing. Even though Hurt perhaps offers a glimpse of hope, it remains mired in realisation perhaps too late, and this distanced perspective can become appealing if it is allowed to be romanticised into the idea of being ‘in a better place’.
The irony of Hurt would be that its saving grace of regret might just as much encourage people to think twice, before doing something they could never take back, and no doubt saved a few lives. Although speaking to Sub Line in 1994, Reznor said: “I left no room for optimism; for a feeling of not being as finished as it seems. Sometimes you feel remorse and vulnerability, what the final score Hurt is about.”
HURT BECOMES A HIT
In 2002 Hurt was covered by Johnny Cash and became a very successful single (selling millions of copies) that brought the song to a whole new audience – but it almost never happened. Producer, Rick Rubin had to convince Cash the song was right for him, encouraging him to read the lyrics, allowing the words to sink in, and through this Cash found the message that resonated with him.
Reznor explained in 2008 that his focus at that time had been to put a hold on his music, to focus upon his recovery and learn to function again as a human being. Rubin contacted him and asked if he was happy for Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt to be released: “I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”
But when Reznor saw the video his attitude shifted, he told Alternative Press in 2004: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”
Cash’s cover was recorded towards the end of his life, and the song itself, seems to prefigure nostalgia; the narrator looking back on what he now sees as a flawed attempt at living; Reznor’s confessional re-aligned to become a journey of the sinner spiritually redeemed. In his essay on NIN, Eric Askeroi notes that Hurt: “is given new life through an old man’s voice.” The difference in years between Reznor and Cash enriches the message of the song as a journey of recovery and survival from two similar but separate points of view, that shared a history of addiction, and for different generations of fans, personified the ‘man in black’; one for god, and one against him. Cash called Hurt: “The best anti-drug song I ever heard.”
In part, it was the video and the overall timing of the song’s release that brought the song to a wider audience and underscored its sense of loss and regret. It was directed by Mark Romanek, who had made the video for Closer, showing a slightly baroque style, filmed largely in Cash’s home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. We see the legendary singer, now 71-years old, wearing no make-up and visibly fragile, either softly strumming his guitar or sat in front of a table with a large feast set before him. These scenes are cut with atmospheric shots from the closed House of Cash museum, in a state of disrepair after being damaged in a flood, along with archive footage clips of Cash, and several crucifixion movie scenes.
The song established a living obituary with Cash’s fading health framed within the museum to his memory, empty of people but stacked full with memorabilia; now falling apart, it occupied a strange space of decline representative of the song’s theme. Cash’s voice audibly cracks on the final chorus, as if he is singing too loud or too close to the mic while in the video he shakingly pours away wine onto the table, discarding the final blood of Christ. The video was so intimate that Cash’s management didn’t think it should be released, but it provides another view of Hurt and emphasised the depth of Reznor’s music on The Downward Spiral album that some listeners could not appreciate behind the layers of distortion, or were not prepared to give it a full listen.
“I was flattered as an artist and as a human being they could do that with my song. And it came at a very insecure time in my life and it felt like a nudge and boost and a hug from God. It said ‘everything’s OK and the world is bigger than what’s just in my head.”
[Trent Reznor, Uncut 2005]
Reznor’s official video for the song comes from a live performance from the 1995 Self-Destruct/Further Down The Spiral tour, using a series of black and white projections as its backdrop. The video opens with a time-lapse film of a decaying fox corpse, then cuts to a series of clips of an atomic bomb explosion, wounded soldiers, concentration camps; a series of atrocities, pained and painful imagery. There is also a shot of a venus flytrap entrapping a frog, this emphasizes one of the album’s nascent themes of nature’s seeming cruelty to itself and the chaos of the life cycle, compared to man’s inhumanity to man.
The entire stage is backlit casting Reznor, a glowing shadow, into negative space as he performs crucifixion postures of the rock star in front of the shocking imagery. This invited some criticism from the Village Voice critic, R. J. Smith, who accused Reznor of knowingly exploiting real-life events for artistic gain, conflating his pain with the mass-murder of millions.
While Carol Siegel argued “knowledge of the world’s evil causes intense agonising, alienation and despair” a state of affairs which the album overall reflects in its expressions of the American culture of violence. But it is the universality of the song’s expression that showed how all human experiences of pain and suffering are equally real and often relatable to others, in this the personal would always become political, it became a question of scale.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
As with Reznor’s early influences of album’s like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the goal with hurt was to make something that expressed emotional pain in a form that was both cathartic and beautiful that resonated with listeners. In this Hurt has something in common with REM’s 1992 hit, Everybody Hurts, a much more universal, and broadly humanistic statement, but like Reznor, the emphasis is upon our ability to empathise and engage with the suffering of others, acting upon the better aspect of our human nature. Hurt brought the entire album into focus and in witnessing Reznor’s pain made it more accessible, going some way to explaining the drastic challenges of the album’s narrator, it is one of the most significant contributions the album makes in breaking down stigma around discussions of mental pain and anguish, openly and without shame.
Reznor’s comment to USA Today about the album overall is reflective of the power of tracks such as Hurt and the need to sometimes explore, and to say, shocking and horrific things in order to express something better, Reznor said: “Maybe there is real human communication that ends up positive even though everything being said is negative.”
On so much of The Downward Spiral Reznor used art as a form of distancing himself from his own thoughts and experiences, channeling them into his narrator. At the time Reznor said that Hurt was not strictly autobiographical, but in keeping with his doom-glaring lyrics across the record, he might have underestimated how much the creation of the Spiral had stemmed from himself and would come to reinforce a uniformly negative trajectory within his own subconscious.
Reznor told Uncut magazine in 2005: “When I wrote the song [Hurt] I had no idea what was in store for me. I wrote the album about somebody who follows this path who was an extension of me. But it was in my head. I hadn’t actually lived it. Then later I lived it. I didn’t realize the record was a premonition.”
Life Beyond Death
“When I become death, death is the seed from which I grow”
[A-h-Pook, William S. Burroughs]
In the Netflix documentary Song Exploder, Reznor described Hurt as “an afterthought, looking back over the album with sense of loss, regret, and longing.” Hurt becomes as near to the album’s final moment of redemption as is possible, but the narrator remains haunted by the persistence of memory, they can only accept ending their life in order to escape the knowledge of living through their own past.
As if to emphasise this harsh realisation, Hurt ends with a final slash of guitar that bursts out of the darkness just as the final note seemed to have faded out, the strings are bent savagely out of shape like a wounded animal’s cry of pain. The beauty of the track is marred, made ugly, by this return to the disruptive state, a reminder of concealed flaws, as if Reznor had to add a last sonic flourish of horrific brute strength to sabotage the song’s delicacy and vulnerability, undermining the narrator’s most sincere and open confession of the entire album.
“The Downward Spiral album was a record all about beating everybody up – and then Hurt was like a coda saying may be I shouldn’t have done that. But to make the song sound impenetrable because I thought it was a little too vulnerable, I tried to layer it in noise.”
[Trent Reznor – Uncut, 2005]
Hurt becomes a final act of willing crucifixion, the narrator acknowledges the conflicted and compromised nature of his damaged self, forced to accept all its flaws and weaknesses. This new-found humbleness neutralises the narrator’s aspiration towards all-consuming desires and dominant megalomania.
Instead the narrator/Reznor seems to achieve a more spiritual, post-religious, state of grace; resembling the buddhist rejection of ego and self-importance, towards a recognition of universal suffering as a shared fact of existence. He becomes truly empowered by allowing self-forgiveness and absolution, this is perhaps the terminal stage in becoming the person one was meant to be, as the narrator figure who has experienced and caused so much hurt, comes to understand what it is to heal.
“The thing about Hurt is, when I wrote it, I felt alone, lost; but that things will be OK – and you’re OK.”
[Trent Reznor – Song Exploder, 2020]
[This blog post is extracted from my book – Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral]
the downward spiral johnny cash hurt