As this decade progresses, 1990s sentimentalists will continue to wax nostalgic as 20-year milestones tick by. As someone who was a teenager for most of that decade, I am also prone to this, especially when it comes to music. I’ve already done so with the most influential album on my life. Today marks another such anniversary: 20 years since the release of Nine Inch Nails‘ The Downward Spiral. It was an album that broadened my musical outlook and emotional scope at a crucial time in my life.
Musically, I had never heard anything like it. Some songs were loud and aggressive; others were ambient and introspective. The album spanned genres from metal to rock to techno, and I learned that critics had sorted it into the “industrial” genre, whatever that meant. I was a little familiar with NIN prior to this. A buddy had lent me the Broken EP a couple years earlier, and I liked it so much I bought my own copy. But it was just a slight taste of the power and range that was fulfilled with The Downward Spiral.
Some of its themes like isolation, struggle, and oppression really hit home. I was a month away from turning 15, living on the rez and confused about my place in the bigger picture. I connected emotionally with some of the lyrics, and it was through this album that I really learned how music could powerfully convey darker sentiments, and that those feelings were valid and common. I didn’t start wearing eyeliner or black nail polish, but I respected that.
Later that summer I saw NIN open for Soundgarden (who, coincidentally, released Superunknown on the same day as The Downward Spiral) at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario. The songs were even more immense live, and I was totally blown away by how Trent Reznor and his band played them. They were energetic and unrelenting, and it looked really fun. I remember walking out of that show feeling extremely happy; almost like I was part of a collective emotional purge and celebration. Music, as art, is a release, and we share to make ourselves and others feel.
I’ve seen various incarnations of NIN play four times since then over the past two decades, most recently last fall at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Each time it was a massive audio/visual spectacle. Their live show really is something to behold. While Trent’s sound has evolved, it’s always nostalgic to hear those songs that struck me to the core as a teen 20 years ago. And as these musical milestones emerge, I’ll continue to reflect proudly and unapologetically. Rock on!