Nine Inch Nails has always played an interesting role in the alternative revolution. The golden age of grunge existed between the deaths of Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood (March 19, 1990) and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (April 5, 1994 — though his body wasn’t found until April 8). Mother Love Bone’s only album Apple was released after Wood’s death in July 1990 and is really the first great album of the grunge period. (If you’re a grunge fan, it’s a must-listen, as it’s criminally forgotten.) By the way, Grunge and alternative are frequently used interchangeably, which is a mistake, since grunge was just part of the alternative equation. In fact, to borrow from that great Lost episode “The Constant,” grunge was the constant amongst alternative’s many variables. Those variables include the Britpop of Oasis and Blur, the pop-punk of Green Day and the Offspring, and the industrial of Nine Inch Nails and Filter.
Nine Inch Nails actually surfaced just before grunge brought alternative into the mainstream in 1991 with their excellent 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. (It’s an honorable mention.) The production is very ’80s, but the songwriting is top notch, and the lead track, “Head Like a Hole,” became an alternative rock classic. “Head Like a Hole” was released as a single three days after Wood’s death in distant Seattle (Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — who basically is Nine Inch Nails, it should be noted — was based in Cleveland) and readied the world for the angst of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a year later. Though Pretty Hate Machine went gold in early ’92 en route to eventually going three times platinum, NIN disappeared, as Reznor became entangled in a legal battle with TVT, the label that released Pretty Hate Machine.
It would be a frustrating five years before Nine Inch Nails returned with their second LP, The Downward Spiral, but not before their contract was bought by Interscope. By this time alternative music had absolutely exploded and American teenagers were salivating for Reznor’s next effort. The Downward Spiral was released on March 8, 1994, the very same day as Superunknown by grunge heavyweights Soundgarden. Superunknown, it turns out, was the last great grunge album of the golden age, as even though Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (November 1994) and the Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut (July 1995) qualify as grunge in my mind, it’s clear that things are changing/have changed when you listen to both of those albums.
Superunknown would win the week in terms of sales, but The Downward Spiral‘s narrative about a man’s chaotic descent into suicide struck a meta-chord a month later when Kurt Cobain turned up dead. The Downward Spiral was an unexpected hit, shifting over four million copies and producing two lasting hit singles, “Hurt” and the alternative rock radio format-defining “Closer.” For the shattered youngsters who struggled with the way their generational hero was yanked away from them, The Downward Spiral allowed them to reenact the trauma, for better or worse. I’m not sure as many people would have responded to The Downward Spiral if they hadn’t been able to relate it to that specific situation. People identified with Cobain’s sardonic temperament, but his suicide left an enormous hole, and his supporters flocked to a brooding new antihero in Trent Reznor.
The Downward Spiral is unhealthy in large doses, as it uncomfortably probes the dark reaches of death and misery with numbing nihilism. It’s an album of awesome power; somehow Reznor has the ability to make your blood race, tricking it into thinking if it travels fast enough it will escape your veins. It’s nuts what this album does to you while you listen to it. It just takes control and doesn’t let go, pummeling your psyche until it ruptures and mining your subconscious while you’re powerless to stop it.