Wednesday, March 25, 2009

20 Albums That Changed My Life, Part 2

Here is the next in my series of 20 life-changing albums. I have a lot to say about this one, so I'm limiting the post to one album:

4) The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch Nails
I could probably make a case for Trent Reznor's debut as Nine Inch Nails, "Pretty Hate Machine" (hereafter referred to as PHM.) To some extent, that was a life-changing one for me. However, in retrospect, I believe PHM and the followup EP "Broken" opened the doors for "The Downward Spiral."
I believe some context is in order. PHM came out in 1989, but I didn't become aware of it until a 1991 Spin magazine article about Trent Reznor, following his triumphant summer in the Lollapalooza tour. I wasn't the only one late to the game, either. The tour and the resulting press brought many new listeners to his debut album. This record was a revelation to me, a guitarist who loved the sound of a power chord, but also had a fascination with synthesizers that began with bands like Kraftwerk and Devo. Here was the best of both worlds for me. I'm not sure I even noticed at first that there were no guitar solos, which is surprising for me!
I was also struck by the dark tone of his lyrics. I had been criticized for many years for my dark, depressing lyrics, and I had finally found someone who was even more depressing!
When Broken came out in 1992, it was a completely different record. At first, I didn't like it, but it quickly grew on me. This was a guitar record, although there were still no guitar solos. The synths were there, but they were buried in a wall of distortion. I came to love this EP so much, I quit listening to PHM for a while. Lyrically, there was even more anger, spurred on by the problems he was experiencing with his record label.
After an agonizing two-year wait, "The Downward Spiral" arrived, and I probably purchased it on the very day it showed up in the stores. Here was the record I had been waiting for! I listened to the entire thing, from the brutal, sledgehammer opening of "Mr. Self Destruct" to the blast of distortion and feedback at the end of "Hurt." For the next several months, I listened over and over again, not just to individual songs, but the entire thing start to finish. This was that kind of record. You couldn't just listen to one song. I would hear "Closer" on the radio, and it just seemed weird that they didn't play "Ruiner," the next song on the album.
This was not just a collection of songs. It wasn't even a concept album or a rock opera, where the lyrics unified what was otherwise a collection of songs. This was almost like a symphony, which was probably why it appealed to me, an educated musician. Much like classical music, the album had extreme dynamic range. "March of the Pigs" is a great example of that, with a soft piano/vocal break in the middle, followed by silence, followed by a blast of noise. I know I was fooled by it the first time! There was also the recurring piano motive, heard most prominently at the end of "Closer," but heard several other times as well.
I was also struck by the production, and spent many hours listening with headphones, trying to pick out individual layers in the massive wall of sound that permeated the entire record. This album, more than any other, sparked a returned interest in the recording process for me. After being a recording major as an undergrad, I lost interest for a number of years. I had a home studio, but it was just there to facilitate the songwriting process for me. "Downward Spiral" reminded me that the studio is a musical instrument, capable of as much expression as any acoustic instrument! Here was a pop artist using the same "Musique Concrete" techniques I had learned when I studied electronic music in college.
As a Nine Inch Nails fan, this record combined the songcraft and production of PHM with the raw energy of Broken. To me, it was the perfect Nine Inch Nails record. There were synths and guitars aplenty, and he even brought Adrian Belew in to play a guitar solo! And the lyrics were more dark and depressing than ever.
"The Downward Spiral" was a turning point for me, both as a listener and as a musician. Of course, given the fact that Trent Reznor and I are close to the same age, and he was struggling with similar addiction issues as I was at the time, this is certainly no surprise. If I were to rank all my life-changing albums in order of importance, it would certainly be number one!
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