There are plenty of contenders for the best albums of the '90s, but The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails is an LP that’s more than a look inside 1994. The album is a genuine masterpiece written and recorded by Trent Reznor during the beginning of his descent into drug-fueled madness. Through the record, Reznor was able to channel the depression and mania that were piling on his personal and professional lives into a dense concept album that captured the feeling of falling apart.
The time leading up to the recording of the album was marked by scandal. Reznor was hiding out from his record company, jettisoning members of his touring band, and becoming the poster boy for industrial rock. Reznor wasn’t just writing about the downward spiral, he was living it.
The Downward Spiral wasn't recorded in a stuffy studio somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, but rather in a house ensconced in the Hollywood Hills. Reznor found the home to be sufficient for accommodating his plethora of gear. At the time, he wanted to live and work in the same space, which meant renting a house that had room to record and somewhere to relax. He inadvertently settled on the home where Sharon Tate and her friends were slain by Tex Watson and the Manson Family in 1969.
Reznor says he didn't know the house was where Tate spent her final, fearful moments, only that it was the right size. In 1994, he told Entertainment Weekly that after renting the home, he had to get out the book Helter Skelter to see for himself if he'd really rented the house.
The place unsettled the artist. As he explained, "Little sounds would make me jump at first, but after a while it was just like home. The house didn’t feel terrifying so much as sad - peacefully sad. But that could just be my own insanity."
Sometime after finishing the album, Reznor purchased the door to the home - the one on which Susan Atkins used a blood-soaked towel to write “PIG.” He installed it as the door to his recording studio in New Orleans.
After moving into the house on Cielo Drive and learning about its horrific past, Reznor leaned into the spooky qualities of the home. Any sense of irony that Reznor had about the slayings or the home where he was staying was wiped away after a conversation he had with Tate's sister.
According to Reznor, Debra Tate bumped into him one day and asked if he was using her sister's passing as a sick form of promotion. He says that at the time he hadn't thought about the implications that came along with recording in the home, only that it fit his dark outlook on life. He said:
One day I met her sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: "Are you exploiting my sister's [passing] by living in her house?" For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, "No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred." I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, "What if it was my sister?" I thought, "F*ck Charlie Manson." I don't want to be looked at as a guy who supports [serial-slayer] bullsh*t.
Reznor went on to say the conversation made him think about the victims of senseless acts of aggression, and it didn't do any good to pretend the people who were close to the events wouldn't have negative feelings about his actions.
Prior to recording The Doward Spiral, Reznor had finished a punishing tour for his previous LP and quickly recorded and released the EP Broken. He knew he needed to release a new full-length album, but he didn't have any solid idea what to write about or why he should even be writing. Reznor admits that after renting the house on Cielo Drive, he sort of futzed around with ideas - and nothing came to fruition.
After a conversation with recording guru Rick Rubin, Reznor was suddenly able to visualize the album he wanted to make. He told Rolling Stone:
I’d been talking to my friend Rick Rubin a lot [as] Rick’s a pretty good friend of mine, and I was completely bummed out. Rick asked me what my motivation for doing this record was, and I told him the truth: Just to get it f*cking done. And he said, "That’s the stupidest f*cking reason for doing an album I’ve ever heard. Don’t do it. Don’t do it until you make music that it’s a crime not to let other people hear."
The conversation with Rubin straightened Reznor's head out. He realized that he was in a great situation to make the perfect album, regardless of what fans were expecting. He told Rolling Stone that after the conversation, he went back to the studio and in a few months he had most of the songs written. He said, "It’s like I came up for air."
After the release of The Downward Spiral, there was no question about what Reznor brought to the musical table. Prior to the album, he was seen as the most popular industrial music artist, but a musician of little importance. Most of the interviews he gave around the time frame him either as an industrial poster boy or as someone who was in the process of mainstreaming a genre that had established itself outside of popular music.
This speculation about his intentions may have weighed on Reznor, especially while he was in the midst of writing and recording an industrial music album that would push the genre to new heights. He worried that, by becoming a popular artist, he was depriving his audience of a kind of musical sanctuary. In an interview with Spin, he gave voice to doubts that he might be the genre's biggest star and worst enemy:
I think because [industrial music] is not legitimate, and by legitimate I mean SPIN and Rolling Stone have not embraced it, so, "This is cool..." Taking it to a major tour, giving it out to the people and making it not their private little possession anymore.