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Table of contents
- Printed Matter, Inc.
- Clea Simon
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Barely a month after "Wonderwall" dropped from the top, another track from Morning Glory , "Champagne Supernova", began its own five week reign at the top. A concept album of sorts that traces a man's descent into addiction, violence, despair and possibly suicide, The Downward Spiral is not an easy listen, nor is it meant to be. Co-produced with one of the all-time greats, Mark Ellis better known as Flood , Reznor presented a dense industrial wall of musical noise to a wider audience than music this extreme had ever seen.
Reznor and Flood are both studio wizards, and The Downward Spiral is awash with endlessly fascinating sonic excursions and textures. The album was a massive success, buoyed by tracks like "March of the Pigs", "Closer", "Piggy" and "Reptile". In the end, though, it all comes down to "Hurt", the moment of reckoning. Shooting up doesn't numb the pain -- nothing does.
It sears within him, unquenchable. He's horrified at himself… "What have I become, my sweetest friend? It unfolds slowly, emerging like a doomed spirit crawling through some dark purgatory. The song's shifting dynamics are key to its effectiveness. Much of "Hurt" is spent in a state of smoldering tension, with eerie effects like shifting sands in the wind and the buzz of insects swaying in the background over flickers of acoustic guitar.
Reznor plays every instrument and creates every sound on the recording, apart from the drums by Chris Vrenna, as the song builds to its heart-pounding climax. Reznor is a master at gradually ratcheting up the pressure and using his vocal phrasing to heighten the sense of drama, progressing from a tortured half-whisper to a feverish howl as needed to convey nuance and emotion. He inhabits the song's character as if it's his own story. Perhaps it is. With all the audio tricks that Reznor has tucked up his sleeve -- and there are many -- none of it would work without the listener believing this man is truly at the end, the moment when addiction and depression and loss have trampled him so brutally that his only solution is a permanent one.
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Reznor leaves the ending ambiguous. The Downward Spiral is ostensibly just that, a cycle of despair that ultimately leads to suicide. The pain is so palpable you can reach into your speakers and feel its evil pulse. After all, he's speaking from experience. He still slams needles into his veins to get the fix he hates and needs. He sees no worth of value in himself, why should anybody else? He's undoubtedly caused endless anguish to himself and others.
He's interminably tormented.
Printed Matter, Inc.
What use, then, to go on living? Yet there is a faint spark of hope and ambiguity at the very end. Even at his bleakest moment, when he can no longer face himself, or the pain Even then, to a shockingly sudden squall of electronic noise that's like a serrated knife to the jugular, he can't quite give in. He can't let go.
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He can't quite surrender to the inevitable. Reznor never completely extinguishes hope.
After the lyrics end and we're left to ponder, the song fades to black with those now-familiar shifting winds. Does he find a way? We don't know how the story ends, how deeply downward the spiral twists. Maybe it ends differently for each person listening, feeling the song in their bones, understanding exactly the anguish Reznor is expressing. The page is blank, the possibilities are there. He leaves a chance, which is, after all, the most any of us can ever expect. Past is prelude, and we all have stories yet to be written. When "Creep" first debuted on MTV back in , nobody could possibly have envisioned that Radiohead would become the single most important band of the next three decades.
It was a great song, sure, with an amazing vocal by Thom Yorke, and the debut album, Pablo Honey was not without moments of promise. But Radiohead didn't sound substantially different from a dozen other bands all treading the same musical territory around the same time period, trying to break through and usually failing. Opinions changed very quickly when The Bends arrived in The artistic progression in such a short span was nothing short of stunning.
The Bends is a once in a career album, though, surely. Common wisdom would suggest that they had zero chance to best it. Fortunately, for them and us, Radiohead just kept getting better, a progression that has continued through their brilliant new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Nothing captures the zeitgeist of isolation, frustration, and cynicism in an increasingly digital world like 's OK Computer , Radiohead's third album. It defines the time in which it was released. The first single was Radiohead's most ambitious work yet, "Paranoid Android". The song is the album's anthem and centerpiece, a monument to disillusionment that can't be expressed in words.
It must have been considered a mad gamble by Parlophone Records to release this chaotic epic as the lead single, but the song is so earth-shakingly brilliant that it became a no-brainer. The first mood begins as a brisk acoustic shuffle, Yorke's voice rising nimbly to a glistening falsetto before quickly descending again. The second section begins at about , where the acoustic guitar pattern turns darker.
Then, at , comes the solemn third section, with mournful choral vocals, a funereal death march, and Yorke singing like a man standing in the rain, face up at the sky, wondering if there's a God who has brought us to this state. Jonny Greenwood's berserk guitar returns in a protracted freakout as the song eventually fades to black. Magnus Carlsson directed a surreal animated video for the song that couldn't be more suited to its cryptic and perverse nature. Part of "Paranoid Android"'s appeal is that no matter how hard you try, there's no cracking the code, like an ancient scroll with alien text that we just can't quite make out.
How seriously can one take a song called "Paranoid Android" in which the vocalist complains of "unborn chicken voices in my head"? But even if it makes no literal sense, you sorta know what he's talking about through osmosis, that incessant yammering that will make you go mad.
It's the combination of words and music to express the noise of the world, the treachery, the corruption, the bulldozing of the have-nots by the haves. Like the rest of the album, it surges through airy acoustic passages and molten guitar explosions while attempting to come to grips with the dispassionate world around us. Nobody's been able to do it yet, but at least they're trying. When compiling the Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s, there wasn't a moment during the entire weeks-long process when it wasn't absolutely clear that Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" would be 1. No other option made sense.
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It's strange how true that has been for the '90s as well. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is one of those rare songs that changes the entire trajectory of rock music; it's a turning point. Mainstream rock was careening happily along one road and an enormous meteor from Seattle hit without warning and, through the dust and debris, somehow the road had branched off in a new direction.
Suddenly the glittery spandex of the '80s that was so tight your balls couldn't breathe was replaced by flannel and thrift-store sweaters. The music was more cathartic, too, more expressive and genuine, often more confessional. There are, of course, similarities between Joy Division and Nirvana. Both recorded material that is held sacred by devotees, in part because of its paucity. Then there is the visceral emotional power that characterizes both bands; an absolute unburdening of the soul, unflinching honesty, and the ability to infuse their music with gut-wrenching power.
In both cases, after the death of the front man, other band members blazed their own trails in music while never able to eclipse the almost mythic quality of their original group. Musically, Joy Division and Nirvana were tight and powerful units, a distillation of combined influences into something new. The influence of both were enormous; the '90s were as littered with bands that were directly impacted by Nirvana as much as the '80s were with bands standing in Joy Division's shadow. Certainly happenstance is part of it -- both singles hit at the start of the decade, a bookend that allows for easy recognition of their places in the decades' musical fabric.
And then, of course, it's impossible to overlook that both frontmen were wracked by insurmountable inner turmoil, and that each would end up taking his own life. Perhaps drawn from Cobain's oft-acknowledged admiration of the Pixies, it's a clever use of dynamics to replicate youthful malaise with the manic restlessness that bubbles just barely under the skin, ready to break out -- and sometimes it does.
It's crisp and sharp, with Cobain's guitar-riffs double-tracked to create a colossal explosion of speaker-rattling sound. In "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Nirvana instills the very essence of adolescent rebellion that every parent has known throughout history. While the lyrics seem to be meaningless, each couplet offers a vivid mental image.
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Then comes the bracingly cathartic chorus, an acidic outburst of mania wrought from the sheer madness of inaction: "With the lights out, it's less dangerous! It's adolescent confusion from a thousand thoughts and emotions that can't even be articulated.
Adulthood is, to a large degree, coming to terms with the fact that these questions have no answer and stewing over them only gets you on larger doses of anti-depressants.