“Our latest guests on Soundtracking are a duo Edith’s been chasing since we started this podcast, so it’s an absolute thrill to finally lure them on.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross burst onto the film-composing scene with their score for David Fincher’s The Social Network, for which they won an Oscar in 2010. The trio have since joined forces on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.
Trent and Atticus’s most recent work can be heard on Fincher’s Mank and Pete Docter’s Soul, which you can watch right now on Netflix and Disney + respectively.
Ushering in a new era of confessional music that spoke openly about experiences of trauma, depression, and self-loathing, Nine Inch Nails’ seminal album, The Downward Spiral, changed popular music forever – bringing transgressive themes of heresy, S&M, and body horror to the masses and taking music technology to its limits. Released in 1994, the album resonated across a generation, combining elements of metal, industrial, synth-pop, and ambient electronica, and going on to sell over four million copies.
I remember once mishearing a line from the David Bowie song Heart’s Filthy Lesson, mistaking ‘abyss’ for ‘exit’. It is a powerful and fascinating slip of the ear, and until I checked the lyric sheet years later, that was how it stayed lodged in my brain. But this incidental perhaps betrays a deeper connection that goes back and forth between Bowie’s album from 1995, 1. Outside and Trent Reznor’s The Downward Spiral – two records that would spark a deep and productive friendship.
IN REMEMBRANCE OF DAVID BOWIE ON HIS BIRTHDAY – 8/1/1947– 10/1/2016
Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall Reznor has frequently stated that he drew on Bowie’s 1977 album Low as a key influence for The Downward Spiral. It displays so many of Low’s studio innovations: non-standard structures of shorter, poppier songs and experimental instrumental tracks that seem to start and finish at random, Spiral would also reflect Bowie’s emphasis on deployment of mood and textures over straight hooks and choruses.
Reznor underlined his interest in contrasting dynamics speaking to Kerrang in April 1994 about Bowie’s Low and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, two ‘Berlin’ records, which sit alongside Bowie’s “Heroes” in detached manic style and expressionist-style album covers: “You may still be expressing extreme emotions, but instead of loud guitars it’s the silence of restraint. When you think it’s going to explode and it doesn’t, it’s over.” It is this use of dramatic tension that so surprises and unsettles the listener and exemplifies the shock and awe, twists and turns that drive the album.
All of this gave Reznor inspiration and the creative confidence to know that like Bowie he could meet his musical vision within the major label system and still achieve critical success without falling into ‘commercial suicide’. But there was also a deeper connection between the emotional tone of Low and Reznor’s own mindset in the early 90s.
[Iggy and Bowie born in the same year, 1947]
Reznor told Mojo in 2005 that he admired and no doubt identified with Bowie himself through Low’s: “Feeling of coldness and desperation, and the daring of the song structure” tracks that seemed to start and end randomly without trying to please the listener.
[LISTEN – Bowie struggling to keep it together in the city – Low is paranoid, hysteric but also disciplined]
But Bowie’s influence on The Downward Spiral goes far beyond Low. In a Studio Q interview from 2013 Reznor explains that the first Bowie record he listened to was actually Scary Monsters : “Bowie’s coldest scariest, and most seductive record, even though it wasn’t friendly” from this he worked backwards to discover Hunky dory . These two records would also inform Nine Inch Nails’ music, through Monster’s use of paranoia, railing against totalitarianism and self-destructive urges [cocaine]; and Bowie’s interest in Nietzschean philosophy of the Superman [Übermensch] and fears of creeping insanity [Bewlay Brothers]. The ‘Berlin trilogy’ albums would be represented in the sonic power of force and restraint also employed on Iggy Pop’s solo records of that time [The Idiot and Lust For Life], co-written and produced with Bowie; Iggy’s tracks, Mass Production and Nightclubbing being proto-NIN songs throbbing with an industrial [and industrialised] grind and the sheen of weary, misanthropic sleaze [along with the sampled kick drum that opens Closer, taken from the intro to Nightclubbing].
[LISTEN – Deep in it, Iggy fights his way through a mechanised dirge, powerful but restrained, the song is an endurance test that breaks into elegiac outro]
In Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists list, published in 2010, Nine Inch Nails appeared at number 94, with the entry written by Bowie. He sets NIN and Trent Reznor’s work somewhere between the poetry of Baudelaire and the music of Velvet Underground. The Downward Spiral uses nihilistic emotional force suggestive of the death of romance, while crafting songs that mask hooks with noise, feedback and experimentation with subverted classical forms of the screeching and droning viola; all damaged hearts wearing their abrasive wounds.
The shrieking of nothing is killing
With the song Heart’s Filthy Lesson, the conflation of ‘exit’ and ‘abyss’ echoes Reznor’s spiral concept where endings, as in self-erasure or death, also mark entrances such as spiritual rebirth from a place of decay; facing-up to “becoming” and the prosect of suicide.
[LISTEN – Bowie and 1.Outside – falling apart in real-time the decadent artist comes face to face with their own decay – see the sepia decline of Closer in this video]
1. Outside is perhaps Bowie’s darkest album, wearing the skin of goth hyperbole, along with Low, it is also his most avant-garde, centring around a convoluted murder-mystery “art crime” plot that works more like a film script turned into an album. Bowie’s concept-heavy approach struggles to sustain its own narrative, and was a largely abstract performance rather than charting personal struggles, as by 1995 Bowie was financially secure, sober and happily married.
[LISTEN – Closer, still provocative after all these years – click the link to compare with Bowies HFL video!]
Heart’s Filthy Lesson, has some of NIN’s grit and grind, with buzzing, itch-driven guitars, and a disjointed structure, but it also marked a significant shift in Bowie’s greater aesthetic, as with many of his albums, particularly Diamond dogs  he created characters that inhabited the visual and imaginary world he built around his music. He wore a new gothic influence on his sleeves, somewhat self-consciously creating a new mask of black T-shirts and eyeliner, and extending this to style of his videos which explored body horror and decay through sepia tones. Bowie said he wanted to critique the idea of establishment absolutes [religion, morality etc.] arguing that it was chaos and paganistic urges [the Chthonic drives of Camille Paglia’s writing – see below] that defined human nature and therefore determined its situation, not some higher power or external authority.
This Way, Or No Way…
Both albums plunge into an impossible space of nihilistic escapism, that suggests either the helix-cage of purgatorial descent, or self-erasure [of the human] through the death of empathetic affect, in favour of post-human solipsistic retreat. It is the crushing and repressive atmosphere of their respective ‘characters’ being held to an invisible situation of impending doom that unite them in a shared struggle.
In the excellent book on Welsh band, Manic Street Preachers, Daniel Lukes sees 1. Outside as an expression of “sick masculinity” seen through the prism of the 90s art world, particularly the YBAs [Young British Artists] re-presentation of their own life experiences as source material, and the exploitation of real-life murders and the body-snatching of sharks and cows. On Spiral Reznor worked to a similar principle, for a man whose life was his art, there is much of his own feelings and mental struggle invested in the album. Bowie wore the decadent attitudes of the YBAs on 1. Outside, particularly with songs titles like The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty). As with the controversy-baiting arrest of schlock and snuff films, the lines between the ‘borrowing’ of the real and the ‘forcing’ of the fake had become jaded to the point where assumed authenticity was used to mask insincerity such that meaning no longer seemed to matter, Bowie was playing on this and pushing ironic detachment to an extreme.
[The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Hirst, 1991]
Bowie’s album chimed with one of his great influences, Scott Walker, whose alien in the city album, Tilt, was released May 1995 a few months before Bowie’s album, and also Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway  which offers something of the innocent abroad, in New York, entering into a world of corruption. These are all traits in common with Reznor’s narrator having gone off the deep end of alienation to retreat into himself, losing his own humanity in the process.
In 1995, Reznor was invited by David Bowie to do a joint tour together, Bowie found that their seemingly opposite styles were a source of attraction, seeing Reznor as a direct, largely solo, minimalist; and his own music as band-driven orchestration born from collaborative jamming. They agreed on an initial 6-week stint, aiming to perform together on each other’s songs, merging towards a shared sensibility. Audiences and critics were divided. At that time Reznor’s career was in the ascendant, whereas Bowie struggled to draw new audiences with his new music, as he resisted compromising himself by serving-up ‘the hits’ for the audience’s sake. The artists’ co-headline status expressed their mutual appreciation through their on-stage dynamic. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2016, Reznor praised Bowie’s artistic fearlessness, as he explained his tour setlist to him : “You know, I’m not going to play what anybody wants me to play. I just finished a strange new album [1. Outside]. And we’re going to play some select cuts from a lot of Berlin trilogy–type things, and the new album. That’s not what people are going to want to see, but that’s what I need to do.”
Speaking to the Hartford Courant in 1995, Bowie said of Reznor: “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there. I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.” The New York Times noted the interesting contrast between Reznor the “explosive introvert” and Bowie the “detached outsider”. Even though they emerged from opposite historical ends of music and popular culture – both artists presided over a persona of general strangeness and alienation.
To promote the tour, Bowie and Reznor appeared in several interviews together, these display their united front of mutual appreciation and the warmth between the two men. They would go on to share a common artistic and personal journey through Reznor’s later challenge with addiction recovery. Where Bowie fled America in 1976, after losing himself in a blizzard of cocaine and paranoia, he ditched his Thin White Duke persona and made his exodus from LA [“The most vile pisspot in the world”] for Europe. Reznor would make an inverse move, leaving Cleveland and shedding his earlier PHM sound along with many ties to the industrial genre, finally settling in LA for the recording of Broken and The Downward Spiral during 1992-1993. Reznor would quickly come to hate the city itself, finding it as fake and full of exploitation as Bowie had done.
Strung out in heaven’s high
Bowie’s revelation for change came after seeing himself in the 1975 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor. It portrayed an emaciated and distant Bowie, visibly losing his grip on reality. Bowie became ‘the Passenger’ of Iggy Pop’s later track, a detached observer chauffeured from place to place, dehydrated from cocaine and subsisting on a diet of milk and green peppers. Speaking to camera about the experience of fame, he mentions the frightening acceleration of going from being unknown to famous, seemingly overnight, though a process that had in fact taken years. In the documentary, Bowie notes a fly that has landed in his carton of milk, and observes that like the drowning insect, he too had gorged himself on the excesses of success to the point that both touring and decadence became a stale exercise of numbing tedium.
Reznor too would experience this sudden shock of having publicity and touring demands thrust upon him. The sales explosion of The Downward Spiral selling millions of copies demanded frenzied activity from Interscope to capitalise on the album’s success, as demand increased tours were extended bringing him to the crest of a new and perilous wave that he had always aspired to, but that now seemed largely out of his control. Speaking of the 1995 Outside tour, he said: “I was a mess, quite honestly. This was the peak of Nine Inch Nails’ newfound rocket ship of fame. It distorted my personality and became overwhelming […] My way of dealing with life was to numb myself with drugs and alcohol, because it made me feel better and more equipped to deal with everything. My career was skyrocketing, but the scaffolding that was holding me up as a person was starting to collapse.” Pressure slowly ticked away at Reznor to work towards a follow-up album, and for this to meet, if not exceed, the commercial and critical impact of The Downward Spiral. Forcing him from one vortex of driven creativity to another, the new world of media attention, growing NIN-mania and music industry expectation.
In part because of this increasingly demanding process, Reznor, as Bowie had, would struggle with addiction from the mid-90s onwards. But Bowie proved a further inspiration in getting clean, showing that recovery was possible, and that without drugs he could still record great music. Reznor explained: “[Bowie] said some things that weren’t scolding, but pieces of wisdom that stuck with me: ‘You know, there is a better way here, and it doesn’t have to end in despair or in death, in the bottom.’” Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Reznor referred to him as a ‘mentor’, recounting that Bowie’s example was both a personal and artistic inspiration.
With 1. Outside, Bowie seemed to have come full circle, completing a reflexive cycle between artist, influence and protege, as if revisiting the bold experimentation and confrontational art sound of Low, by virtue of Reznor’s praise. While The Downward Spiral’s success showed that there remained an audience for transgressive music that veered between experimentation in avant-garde textures, pop sensibilities and even non-music for Bowie to confidently pursue his new project.
Ashes to ashes
Bowie and Trent shared a close friendship and mutual respect, the two artists influencing and collaborating with one another throughout their careers. Reznor remixed Bowie tracks and would appear in the video for Bowie’s single I’m Afraid Of Americans , later performing the track as a modern protest song at several live shows. One journalist compared the relationship to a two-way Oedipus complex – the father feeding off the son and the son wishing to kill; to consume and to become, the father. This is perhaps unfair, Reznor offered a development of Bowie’s creative spark that encouraged the breaking of musical and genre conventions, and it was his artistic resolve that gave him the courage to produce a ground-breaking album, which in turn encouraged Bowie to reassess his own value of as a contemporary artist.
Reznor would remember Bowie following his death by performing the track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, from his final album Blackstar , while on tour, also recording a studio version. The song is as much about looking forwards as reflecting upon death, fearlessly; not reflecting or wallowing in the past, but embracing and dealing with the present. And this is perhaps Bowie’s key influence upon Reznor, who, while failing to match Bowie’s breathless run of 70s albums, has committed himself to recovery and regaining control of his life, reinventing Nine Inch Nails with every album, and that is perhaps the greatest tribute he could have paid to his friend and mentor.
I love to reflect on Bowie from a quote when he was interviewed circa. 1997, around the time of the Earthling album, where he argues that the making of great art demands full immersion in a space somewhere between challenge and doubt
“Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
“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.
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“ [Hurt, 1994]
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]
The Downward Spiral is commonly acknowledged as a challenging, bleak, and sometimes depressing album. Its lyrics speak of pain and misery while its music is angry and defiant; with the album’s narrator often switching sides in this disorientating push and pull of emotions.
It is hard to say why the alternative and metal fans identified so deeply with the record, providing a form of therapy and representing a new openness in discussions about mental health as an issue that affects everyone.
The lingering question here is the extent to which The Downward Spiral is symptomatic of the Generation X era, but also offered its own cathartic and expressive solution.
S. Alexander Reed noticed how a wealth of bands from the early 1990s, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains et al, presented themselves as these same “damaged hollow men”. This harsh introspection sometimes tipped over into self-loathing and addiction issues; where the initial empathy of up and coming musicians became reserved for their rock star lifestyles, failing to highlight and attack wider social concerns as the root cause of their own unhappiness. But perhaps it is no accident that many of their fans felt the same way.