For the past 30 years, Trent Reznor has created fearless, groundbreaking, and progressive music as Nine Inch Nails. He’s released several successful albums that fans still love, but none match the force and impact of 1994’s The Downward Spiral. It’s an ambitious, complex concept album that broke musical boundaries and was unapologetic in its discussion of addiction, mental health, and suicide. It’s a bleak album that turned out to be a hit with critics and fans alike, yet eerily foreshadowed Reznor’s own downward spiral.
25 years later, the album is considered his magnum opus. Its themes of isolation, nihilism, and depression still resonate today. There’s no doubt about its importance and the influence it continues to have on music. Its cultural significance, along with its themes, and history are the subject of Adam Steiner’s new book, Into the Never. Steiner chats with GENRE IS DEAD! about the book’s inspiration, why the album is so important, and why it still strikes a chord with people two decades later.
GENRE IS DEAD!: Into the Never looks at the history, making of, and cultural significance of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. What inspired you to write this book?
Adam Steiner: I love The Downward Spiral, as an album, but also as a work of art; an artifact of one person’s experience articulated in such a raw, intense, and expressive form that at times pushes it beyond the realms of music. Being well immersed in the album I felt there were a lot of thematic, artistic, and biographical undercurrents that deserved to be explored. I felt the book needed to be written since the album offers so much in multiple directions that touch on philosophy, faith, and mental health issues than most albums.
For lots of fans, it’s the album that saved their life. It reflected some of their innermost anxieties, traumatic experiences, and perhaps most importantly the realization that they had struggled through something difficult. In this ironic sense, it had a life-affirming power of surviving some of life’s greatest challenges. There are also lots of wider social issues and pop culture interests that show a range of weird connections, like the album being recorded in the house where Sharon Tate was murdered, its relation to The Manson Family, and the whole imagery of the spiral as spiritual disintegration.
GID: There’s a lot to unpack with the album, which helped solidify its iconic status. But many of Nine Inch Nails’ releases are considered important, like Pretty Hate Machine, The Fragile, and even With Teeth. So why specifically did you want to talk about The Downward Spiral?
AS: Different fans have different favorites and so many of Nine Inch Nails’ releases are iconic in their own way, but I feel The Downward Spiral is the most iconic and far-reaching of them all. Similar to the Manic Street Preachers’ 1994 album, The Holy Bible, it achieved unique artistic success that went against all reason and logic. It’s something so alienating, misanthropic and irreconcilable to itself, yet was massively popular and achieved huge critical success. In many ways it, alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind influenced, or even defined, so much about Generation X: the resignation, the post-60s collapse of idealism in the face of new-liberal supremacy, the break with organized religion and the rise of sexual politics and identity.
Regarding other releases, Pretty Hate Machine is the unique album that started it all while fan-favorite The Fragile shows lots of depth and range not many bands could pull off. With Teeth is interesting because it comes after rehab and its Reznor reasserting his artistic legacy. Yet The Downward Spiral just blew up in terms of influence, cultural reach, and a singular artistic vision fulfilled.
GID: With the depth and detail you go into the album and Nine Inch Nails in general in the book, it’s clear that you’re a fan who loves this music. When did you get into the band and what made them appealing to you?
AS: I first heard The Downward Spiral around 1999 when I was a teenager. For me, the album sat as a close companion piece to the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, another favorite of mine. Both records cover similar emotional territory, particularly self-loathing and anger as a form of resistance to depression. Manic Street Preachers came at this from a more literary, almost academic headspace. Nine Inch Nails from the gut. I am also attracted to both albums’ aesthetic, with the artwork, marketing, and interviews. The image they presented built their own world around them.
GID: The book covers a lot of ground from giving us background on Reznor to the making of the album and tying its themes to larger ideologies. Clearly, a lot of work, passion, and research went into this book. How long did the process take?
AS: Overall, I’d say a year or so. Much of my time was preoccupied with research because there was so much great stuff out there from recent interviews with Reznor, along with the fresh context of Nine Inch Nails’ continued career and Reznor’s soundtrack work with Atticus Ross, which I think has surpassed some of the new Nine Inch Nails music in both its ambition and quality. The writing of the book was cut in two by the birth of my daughter, Maja, which meant I was learning to be a dad, supporting my partner, and battling through savage sleep deprivation [while writing the book].
Maja changed everything in terms of working practice. In the first few months, I wrote a floating on an exercise ball with her curled in my lap. Of course, her presence was certainly an influence, babies help you see the world anew in one sense refreshing your appreciation for life. This helped me to appreciate some redemptive power in the album, which on the surface is experienced as a coruscating baptism of fire delivered through extreme self-doubt and universal nihilism. But obviously the coup de grace of “Hurt” aligns you to the salvation from the album’s increasing suicidal verve. The ability to forgive yourself is a major step in recognizing your own self-worth as a thinking feeling being, and from this, we are able to accept forgiveness from and offer it to others. This self-love might sound indulgent, but it enables us to reach a place in which we can be loving and caring towards others.