Beauty is a funny concept. Because it's tied to the experience of sensory pleasure, people tend to associate beauty with art that is pleasant, uplifting, harmoni- ous. Mention "beautiful music" to most listeners and what springs to mind are sounds that seem soothing and melodious -- an aesthetic almost defined by the absence of dissonance.
That's not the kind of beauty found in the new Nine Inch Nails album, though. There's nothing easy about listening to the songs on "The Downward Spiral" (Nothing/Interscope 92346, arriving in stores today), given the amount of discord that lies within; from ear-searing synths to hyper-distorted guitars to electronically manipulated screams, it features almost every kind of aural violence imaginable.
And yet, beneath its carefully constructed clangor lies something akin to what Yeats described as "a terrible beauty" -- music that elevates and inspires even as it delves into the darkest corners of anguish, self-loathing and despair.
Granted, those qualities won't be apparent to everyone. Some listeners will be put off by songs like "Heresy" (chorus: "Your God is dead and no one cares/If there is a hell, I'll see you there") or the suicide-considering title tune (more about this later). Others will find it difficult to endure the industrial-strength noise that sheathes songs like "Big Man with a Gun" or "Mr. Self Destruct." This album gives no quarter and takes no prisoners.
So why even bother? In part, because Trent Reznor -- the computer-savvy multi-instrumentalist who pretty much is Nine Inch Nails (NIN) -- is one of the few songwriters capable of probing deeper than the self-pity and knee-jerk nihilism that passes for soul-searching in most alternative music these days.
"I Do Not Want This," for instance, offers a poignant depiction of the anger and desperation that comes with being trapped between wanting to "do something that matters" and being stuck in an existence where "maybe I don't have a choice/ and maybe that is all I have." Or take "Reptile," which blithely makes the connection between self-loathing and promiscuity without ever using either term.
As powerful as Reznor's words are, though, the real strength of "The Downward Spiral" is the music. Like a lot of the so-called industrial bands, NIN relies heavily on mechanized percussion, jackhammer synths and ear-searing guitar noise -- the sort of stuff typically found on albums by Ministry, Front 242 or KMFDM.
But where those bands tend toward a sort of unceasing sonic assault, NIN's music is full of dramatic shifts in dynamics. "Mr. Self Destruct" rages on for two verses at paint-peeling intensity, then suddenly drops into an ominously quiet bridge of whispered vocals and shimmering, soft keyboard burbles, while "March of the Pigs" punctuates the oddly metered fury of its throbbing synth-pulse with an out-of-nowhere bit of acoustic piano and a wry, sarcastic vocal from Reznor.
There's also a strong melodic bent to the songs here. Even though the hooks are often hidden beneath a layer or two of distortion, Reznor makes sure they come across, sneaking through the noise to insinuate themselves into the listener's consciousness. Many songs have an almost orchestral grandeur to them, like "Heresy," with its shifting themes and well-modulated intensity, or the brassy, majestic roar of "Ruiner."
Still, his pop sense is more than a little skewed. What else can be said of a man who hands over the album's catchiest chorus -- in the sinuous, engagingly rhythmic "Closer" -- to a resolutely unprintable sex lyric? Clearly, NIN is neither MTV-bound nor radio friendly this time out.
Then again, it probably shouldn't be, because "The Downward Spiral" is the sort of album that's best appreciated if approached as a whole. It isn't just that the album's thematic unity -- like the way "Closer" ends with the same 11-note theme that anchors the title tune -- is lost if the songs are heard discretely; frankly, the emotional odyssey described in the songs makes little sense if the songs are listened to out of sequence.
Following Reznor on "The Downward Spiral" won't be easy, but anyone capable of surviving the journey will likely find it a trip worth taking.
Nine Inch Nails
Listen to excerpts from the Nine Inch Nails' new album, "The Downward Spiral," by calling Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone telephone, punch in 6101 after you hear the greeting.