Released on March 8, 1994.

For The Downward Spiral anniversary, a look back at Nine Inch Nails quietly becoming one of the most important, influential acts of the ’90s.


Released on March 8, 1994, Trent Reznor‘s breakthrough album shares the exact same birthday as Soundgarden‘s breakthrough Superunknown. I wrote about that one here; I’d love for you to check it out. I take a more historic approach there, contrasting the album with the rest of the band’s catalog and the band’s contemporaries. I’m going to take a more personal approach with The Downward Spiral.


Because, let’s face it, this album is massive. It’s thick and dark and complicated. And its impact–on Reznor’s creativity and psyche, on other artists, on the greater world of alternative rock–has been well-documented. I don’t have a fresh, hot take to compete with the tomes that have been written about The Downward Spiral over the last thirty-plus years. I just have my own relationship with the album.


The Downward Spiral Anniversary: Nine Inch Nails Comes of Age

I was a 17-year-old high school junior when I bought The Downward Spiral on cassette in March of ’94. My introduction to Nine Inch Nails was their 1992 Broken EP. They say you never forget your first time, and that one is still my favorite to this day. It sparked my love for industrial music. “Wait, you can have guitars AND synths and be heavy and angry without being punk?” Yes, young Adam 12, you can.


I was expecting another punch in the face/kick in the balls with The Downward Spiral, and I got it. But I got something else, too. I got “Hurt.” And industrial ballad? Yes. And a defining Gen X musical moment. Seeing that song performed live at the Garden on NIN’s Self Destruct Tour, with the giant screen behind the band displaying a decaying dog carcass in time-lapsed black-and white? That shit sticks with you.


I’ll be honest, I didn’t get the whole “concept” of the concept album at first. But I got the emotion behind it. The anger, the despair, the frustration (of a sexual variety): emotions any freshly-minted 17-year-old can relate to. I was coming of age, and this was my soundtrack. Years later, I’d learn that this album was a coming of age of sorts for Trent Reznor, too.


30 years on, The Downward Spiral still stands up as a masterpiece of ’90s alternative music. Take a spin through a selection of tracks below and you’ll see. And hear. And if you ever see me out and we’re talking tunes, ask me to tell you the story of sharing a selection from this album with a classmate at the Berklee Summer Program back in ’94 and her reaction. I can’t share it here.

  • "March Of The Pigs"

    Another interesting connection between Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, aside from the shared release date of their two breakthrough albums: both bands love working in odd time signatures. This one’s 3 bars of 7/8 followed by a bar of 8/8.

  • "Closer"

    Yes, this was the “big hit” radio single. Yes, we had to edit the hell out of it to play it on the radio. Ditto on the music video. MTV couldn’t (wouldn’t?) air the Director’s Cut. Thanks to YouTube, I can share it here.

  • "Hurt"

    I can’t stress enough how lucky we were to have the alternative radio stations we had in Boston in the ’90s. This was a really hard to play. But programmers took the risk and we were all better off for it.

  • "Piggy"

    Like “Hurt,” “Piggy” didn’t receive a proper single release by Nothing/Interscope. But that didn’t stop radio from playing it.

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