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Plumbing the Depths : On Nine Inch Nails' 'Downward Spiral,' Trent Reznor mines a dark personal vein. Is it self-exhumation--or group therapy?

March 06, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Trent Reznor has two piles of scientific photo books, their titles promising microscopic views of molecular chaos and such, stacked on the coffee table in his San Fernando Valley hotel suite.

It's not that the musician has suddenly acquired an academic interest in biology. Rather, he's on the lookout for pictures that he can use as promotional art for his new album, "The Downward Spiral."

"We were looking for different images of spirals found in nature, like for 12-inch-single covers," explains Reznor, flipping through the arcane books. "I sent my guy out to go to a variety of places, and he came back with this little gem."

He picks up a medical volume titled "The Atlas of Gynecologic Pathology" and opens it at random to a page with color photos detailing the devastation that disease can cause. "Horrific," he says. "And it gets worse."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 10, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
A story March 6 referred to TVT Records as Nine Inch Nails' old label and Interscope Records as the new label. Nine Inch Nails is signed to TVT-Interscope, a joint venture between Interscope and TVT Records, a New York-based record company.

More flipped pages. A nervous chuckle over the graphic grotesqueries. "Things could be worse, you know?"

In Reznor's musical universe, they invariably are.

Disease and decay are hardly foreign metaphors for the consumptive anger and despair that make up the unsettling lyrical world of Nine Inch Nails--the nom de plume under which Reznor records.

On the road, with a revolving lineup of musicians, Nine Inch Nails actually becomes the rock 'n' roll band its name would promise. But in the studio, Reznor works primarily alone, creating highly computerized music so dark and so personal that it indeed comes to sound like the most secret innards of one man's skull, scraped out, perhaps, with a blunt instrument.

The descending arc of the new album runs from punkish broadsides against society, rage against religion and conformity, examinations of such escapist satisfactions as animalistic sex, into full-on, shockingly uncensored self-hatred--suicidal tendencies included. Parts of "The Downward Spiral" are so intense they almost make that pathological photo atlas on Reznor's coffee table look like a walk in the park.

But if it's scary stuff, not everyone is frightened off. "Spiral" arrives this week as one of the most anticipated albums of the year. As exhilaratingly well-made as it is spiritually exhausting ( see review, Page 66 ), its landing is likely to leave a major depression--no pun intended.

*

Ever since Nine Inch Nails blew audiences away as the surprise hit of the 1991 "Lollapalooza" tour--suddenly quadrupling the sales of its 1989 debut, "Pretty Hate Machine," well past the million mark--the stakes have been raised for whatever follow-up Reznor might design.

A year and a half ago, to alleviate the pressure, he released a defiantly uncommercial mini-album, "Broken," and didn't do any touring to publicize it. Much to his amazement, it entered the Billboard charts at No. 7 and one of its tracks won last year's Grammy for best metal performance with vocal.

Clearly, Reznor's confessionals have tapped a vein of youthful alienation that yearns for a more extreme expression than Nirvana's more archly rendered Angst . So while there's nothing resembling a possible hit single on the album, which Reznor tried to create without thinking about the pressure to produce an alternative blockbuster, the Zeitgeist could be just right to elevate NIN a few twists higher on the upward spiral of stardom anyway.

"I was interested in exploring some more bleak terrain on this record," says Reznor, 28, in what may qualify as the understatement of the year.

"I wanted to make a record that worked as a theme through the whole thing, one of self-examination and (self)-discovery and (self)-destruction at the same time, but what could end up being a healthy process, of shedding some blankets of blindness that you surround yourself with.

"And I address some ugly things and some desperate moments on the record, looking for consolation in perhaps the wrong things--through religion, through sex, through empowerment, through drugs. It was things that I've dealt with and still deal with at times. . . . I think I kick into self-destruction mode once in a while."

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Trent Reznor isn't scary.

This, in fact, may be the most shocking thing about him. And, though it may not be the motivating force that drives him, he clearly has within him a love for shock appeal.

This is, after all, the musician who rented the house in the hills where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family, though he now regrets the notoriety that brought him. And Nine Inch Nails' macabre, sadomasochistic, apocalyptic videos have had the feel of snuff films (especially the infamous "Happiness in Slavery," which graphically depicted machines inflicting genital torture and evisceration on a naked man).

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