OTR, Take 50: Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Here's today's album on Tidal and Spotify, if you'd like to listen along.

The old familiar sting

Going back to something that was once familiar but that has drifted away and out of your consciousness is a dangerous exercise. This is why going "home" is often such a tenuous thing; nostalgia cuts both ways, as the loss of something that was and the reminder of something you had to escape. We have two intrinsically linked impulses as we grow up, the first to falsify our memory to create some halcyon time and the other to create a new life built entirely out of new pieces, "leaving" everything else behind.

We tend to be either Protean in the creation of our lives or conservators of the lives we were born into. Usually both, though not many of us admit that. The human ego is a knotty beast. We inherit so much; the question is whether we want that inheritance, whether we are looking to escape the imprint and consequences of that inheritance or whether we're looking to leverage it to advantage. (Again: usually both.)

Unconcerned with monkey problems.

A few weeks back, my buddy Rob (he of Slayer fame in these pages) asked me whether I've written about Nine Inch Nails's The Downward Spiral yet. I said that I don't have the album on vinyl, so it hasn't been an option. Earlier this week, the 2017 remaster showed up at my doorstep, so I guess it's time to return to something from my past – a record I listened to a lot in my teens but have drifted away from.

Going home is fraught, visiting with the characters of adolescence, those figures we thought were so important, teaches us sometimes uncomfortable lessons about ourselves.

God is dead and no one cares

For the past two or so weeks, I've been mostly off LinkedIn. I didn't release an episode of Sonder Union, even thought I have the next one completed, edited, and ready to go. I haven't stopped working on Pennhollow, but by the end of this newsletter, I'll have written probably four times as many words here (this generally runs 1500-2000 words) than I've written for my book the past two weeks.

Nobody has noticed. This is rather reassuring, really, a reminder of my own smallness. I mean that genuinely: we all think we want to be important and famous, but we don't, really. If you've ever known anyone who has built a platform for his or herself, you have certainly heard that it is a real fucking headache. I've carved out a tiny little corner where a few people will lend a little bit of attention now and again and go on with your days. I appreciate the audience and the low-stakes of it.

But – you knew there was a but coming, right? – this is all a lot of work and I'm starting to feel a bit burned out. Maintaining one business, building out another, writing a novel, recording and releasing a podcast, writing a longform newsletter, posting on LinkedIn nearly every day...I feel like a six year old at the end of a party. It's been a good time, but maybe it's time for a nap?

Recently, I ran across two old photos of me, one the week before law school started:

Look at that hair!

And one taken the sometime during my first year of private practice:

That's someone who's having fun!

Something changed. A weight dropped on me somewhere along the line. There's something in my eyes in the second photo that looks like a dude bracing for something terrible. (Something terrible was coming.)

I've done a lot of work to move beyond both of these versions of myself: not nearly as naive as the first, not as unhappy and uptight as the second. I've mostly settled into a happy place – or as happy as someone with anxiety, depression, and ADHD can reach – and I don't want to invite that sense of overwhelm and dread back into my life. I would like to remain properly whelmed.

So I may be reconsidering my dedication to some of my projects. I doubt any will go away, but we'll see if they're as consistent. The one thing I want to preserve at all costs is Pennhollow, which is also the first one I'll set aside when I get busy.

Funny how your most important work, the work that means most to you and has the deepest hold on you, is the first you set aside, isn't it? Resistance is a wily, shameless opponent.

Help me I've got no soul to sell

Beautiful packaging on this reissue!

1994 was an absolutely absurd year for music. Here are just a few albums that came out:

  • Illmatic, Nas
  • Definitely Maybe, Oasis
  • crazysexycool, TLC
  • Grace, Jeff Buckley
  • [Blue Album], Weezer
  • Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, OutKast
  • Superunknown, Soundgarden
  • Selected Ambient Works, Vol II, Aphex Twin
  • Parklife, Blur
  • Diary, Sunny Day Real Estate
  • Rubberneck, Toadies
  • Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement

I could go on and on. These are just off the top of my head. It was an annus mirabilis for music. What's amazing is how many of these are, in effect, the coming-out parties for the musicians. 1994 was the year that they made it, and I remember being 13 and thinking I was living through something magical.

Some of these bands were right at the center of popular music (Soundgarden, Nirvana (Unplugged was released), Pearl Jam, TLC), but off to the side was Nine Inch Nails, dressed not in flannel but all in black fishnets, as though Robert Smith got lost in Berlin and found a bunch of distortion pedals and a drum machine.

Quite a codpiece, there.

At the time, I remember thinking that NIN was on the edge, out of the mainstream; of course, they were a different kind of mainstream: The Downward Spiral sold over three million copies. I was a little young for The Downward Spiral when it first came out when I was in 7th grade, but I distinctly remember the NIN logo beginning to show up all over the place. Kids with older siblings wearing NIN shirts on the bus, yelling, "I want to fuck you like an animal!" without really knowing what they were saying.

It wasn't until several years later that I listened to NIN with any purpose – probably my sophomore year of high school. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, My Bloody Valentine, Jam, and the Smiths. I'd become a full devotee of English music. NIN offered something different, both more sterile and harsher. It was moody music, and I was only occasionally a moody kid.

goddamn this noise in my head

The thing I'm struck by more than anything as I listen to The Downward Spiral for the first time in a decade or so is how great much of it sounds. It's really beautifully mixed, with juicy bits of ear candy all over the spectrum. When the distorted guitar comes in, I find myself trying to ignore it so I can listen to all of the atmospherics in the rest of the mix.

This was really bothering me at first: I kept wanting to listen to the quiet parts and I kept wanting Reznor to stop talking about his dick. (Seriously: listening to this today, I was struck by how many of these songs are horndog missives clothed in industrial production.) The production on these tracks really stands up: Reznor & co. were doing some really interesting things, but going hard for shock value.

Then it dawned on me, as counterintuitive as it may be: Nine Inch Nails was Reznor's juvenalia. Very successful juvenalia, for sure, but still the immature work of a superb musician.

After I spun The Downward Spiral twice this morning, I put on the soundtrack from The Social Network and then Watchmen. This clicked: all of the compelling aspects of NIN were here, forefronted. Reznor (and his soundtrack partner, Atticus Ross) have a gift for creating atmosphere and leaving space, for inviting you into co-creation of something. I doubt Reznor expected to win his first Grammy for a soundtrack, but sometimes it takes us a while to find our way to our true gifts.

Problems do have solutions, you know

The funny thing about going home is that you can't, really. I drove past the house I grew up in a few weeks ago and saw a whole new batch of kids playing in the yard. The dog running around wasn't ours. You can go home, but it will have changed. We cannot access our past but in memory, and our memories lie to us. We can get together with family, revisit with old friends – but we will all have changed. Our pursuits, our desires, our focus changes.

Change isn't good or bad, intrinsically. But it is inevitable. I'm trying to figure out what this guy – who both is and is not the same as the two guys above, from decades ago – wants now. Perhaps it's time to remove the loud, distorted guitar from the mix and to stop shouting about my dick all the time. I mean...well, you get it.

A touch more grizzled, a lot more comfortable in my skin.

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