Every other chapter in Adam Steiner’s book about Nine Inch Nails’ most prolific record dives deep into the background of each track. It makes for slow progress through what’s an academic and informed read; after each entry you want to put the book down and listen to the profiled song with smarter ears.
Commonly known for its narrator’s descent into addiction and its nihilism, The Downward Spiral still holds up 26 years on as a defining record of the 90s. Some of its legend has gotten in the way of its more worthwhile talking points – Trent Reznor choosing to record it in the house Sharon Tate was murdered still leaves a foul taste. But as Steiner demonstrates, it’s an album worth knowing not just a little about, but an entire book, filled with analyses of the songs themselves and the culture around which The Downward Spiral exists.
While it’s not a leisurely read – its dense information and clearly defined chapters make it easy to dip in and out – a book of this kind rests on whether it makes you see the record it’s about in a new way. Since picking it up, Into the Never has made me revisit one of my favourite albums and form new relationships with it while tightening the many existing ones.
On a critical level, the lyrical insight from Steiner does Reznor’s words justice. He understands where Reznor and the narrator begin and end, something which reactionaries at the time did not. But he also knows when to call Reznor out for when he should have known better, with the provocative lyricism of songs like Big Man With A Gun rightfully examined from all angles, not all of them supportive. Allowing space for each song to have the attention it deserves shows The Downward Spiral is more than just addiction and nihilism. Even Big Man With A Gun, a song Steiner and Reznor both agree is far from NIN’s best track, is saying something about masculinity, music, the glorification of violence and male aggression.
Musically, the book strips back each layer of an album which to this day sounds so full. There are more samples involved than I was aware, and the album’s motif appears in more places than which are obvious. Taking another look at a track like A Warm Place, with its relatively soothing textures, reveals it to be more substantial than just an interlude. Steiner contextualises it as a brief reprieve from the narrator’s self-destruction, but not a release from the path he’s on given what borders it on both sides, making the wordless track horrifying because of the inevitability of what’s to come.
Every other chapter is about what surrounds the record or Nine Inch Nails at the time, such as Reznor’s professional relationship with David Bowie, Columbine, and whether The Downward Spiral was part of Generation X’s problems or a catharsis to them. Some help trace Reznor’s path from the early 90s to the present day, placing his music then alongside the work of David Fincher, for whom he’s composed a number of scores with NIN bandmate Atticus Ross. It’s hard to disentangle Reznor from the works of Fincher and David Lynch once their long-term working relationships are laid out like they are here, and so the spirit of those filmmakers’ work is felt in the music of Reznor.
Hopefully Steiner won’t mind that the greatest success of his creation is how it makes you appreciate someone else’s work all the more. I’m hearing an album I thought I knew front to back afresh, scarier than before, more human, and more narratively complex. Into the Never approaches the album both simply as it is and as a significant part of 90s culture, industrial music, and the way in which it pushed boundaries through the method it was made. Crucially, Steiner isn’t a fawning fanboy. He writes with the authority of academia and doesn’t hesitate to criticise where he feels it’s necessary. The record is a piece of art he cares deeply about, which he’s done proud with the attention he shows it and with the respect he approaches each song and subject. It makes for a rich and resourceful read, a trusty companion for this most affecting album.
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails and the Creation of The Downward Spiral by Adam Steiner is out now, published by Backbeat Books