The Downward Spiral has surely scared the shit out of a large number of kids. Back in the day, I ordered it from Columbia House, spent a few days hiding it under my bed, occasionally reading the lyrics, then sent it back. The first time I heard the whole thing it honestly frightened me, and not in a good way like Antichrist Superstar scared me. Whereas Marilyn Manson was deemed suitable enough to keep and enjoy for years to come, The Downward Spiral took me years to come back to.
Part of the mystique surrounding the album is that it was recorded in the house where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charlie Manson’s deranged group of knife-wielding, acid-full blood-writers. What does this add to the album? I’m not exactly sure, and why anyone would want to record an album there, the acoustics? Maybe it’s just Trent being dark for the sake of being dark, for the facade, for the way that it appears to the viewer, so we can say "wow, that’s dark, he must be really deep, this is coming from a tortured soul." And it’s probably true that it is. He’s torturing himself for the sake of the art, which I guess is something I can get behind.
The Downward Spiral, for better or worse, takes us to the darkest corners of our minds, a place most would only want to visit for a short time, not a place to live. Truthfully, 65 minutes gets to be a bit much; if it weren’t for “Hurt” waiting at the end, I’m not sure I could make it all the way through. But just like the yin and yang symbol, each side contains a bit of its opposite. So within such a goosebump-inducing and frankly depressing album, there must lie the remedy to all of this drug-induced moping.
I think it’s found in the most improbable of lines, one of the album’s most famous: “I want to f*** you like an animal.” And it’s not just about the sex, so don’t get creeped out; it really has nothing to do with it. It’s about something else that’s being alluded to. On “Heresy,” Trent Reznor screams Nietzsche’s familiar line, “God is dead,” adding the word ‘your’ ahead of it, emphasizing that that this is not his God, but that it is someone else’s notion of what the word “God” means. So two songs later on “Closer,” Reznor replaces the prior definition with one of his own, saying “I want to f*** you like an animal/You get me closer to God.” Here he must be using a different definition than the previous song, since that previous God is dead. So how does he plan on getting closer to his own definition?
How he does this is by returning to something real, something not abstract, and something outside the realm of speculation, outside the symbolic order. This connects to the line “Tear down my reason” later in the song, as is often our mental reasoning, the life that we live in our minds, that we prioritize over pure physical experience; we live more “in our heads” than in the physical world. So to me, when he sings about sex allowing him to get closer to God, although the language itself might give us a “dirty” feeling, he’s not really describing anything inherently disgusting. Being more like an animal might merely be to prioritize the physical-ness of the act over the mental, getting the focus out the head for a while, behaving more like an animal in that respect, and perhaps getting closer to a kind of truth about the world by doing so.
Or maybe it’s just about doing it doggystyle.